Arkansas woman drowns in a flood after 911 dispatcher scolds her during her final minutes

Posted at 6:50 AM, Aug 31, 2019
and last updated 2019-08-31 06:50:47-04

Debra Stevens was working her normal newspaper delivery route in Fort Smith, Arkansas, when rising flood waters began to overtake her SUV.

The final, desperate 911 call of the 47-year-old woman who delivered the Southwest Times Record to front doors came at 4:38 on the morning of August 24. It was a panicked 22-minute plea for help with a dispatcher that the Fort Smith Police Department admitted sounded “calloused and uncaring at times.”

“I have an emergency — a severe emergency,” Stevens told the female dispatcher. “I can’t get out and I’m scared to death, ma’am. Can you please help me?”

A terrified Stevens told the dispatcher over and over that she was going to die in the rapidly rising water. She wept and asked repeatedly when help would arrive. She didn’t know how to swim, she said. She had trouble describing her location. She didn’t want to die, she said.

“You’re not going to die,” the dispatcher said in audio released by police this week. “I don’t know why you’re freaking out… You freaking out is doing nothing but losing your oxygen in there. So calm down.”

Stevens said water was pouring into her car. It would soon ruin her new phone.

“Do you really care about your brand new phone?” the dispatcher asked. “You’re over there crying for your life. Who cares about your phone.”

Stevens said she didn’t see the water on the road. She came up on it suddenly. She kept apologizing. The water was starting to reach her chest, she said. She could see people in the distance looking at her. They’re probably laughing, she said.

“Ma’am, I’m sorry,” Stevens cried.

Stevens at one point said she needed to vomit.

“Well, you’re in water, you can throw up,” the dispatcher said. “It’s not going to matter.”

Crying uncontrollably, Stevens asked the dispatcher to pray with her.

“You go ahead and start off the prayer,” the 911 operator said.

“Please help and get me out of this water, dear Father,” Stevens said.

Again, she apologized for sounding rude. But she was afraid.

“This will teach you next time don’t drive in the water,” the dispatcher told her.

Stevens insisted she didn’t see the flood waters. She’s worked her paper route 21 years and never experienced anything like this.

“I don’t know how you didn’t see it. You had to go right over it. The water just didn’t appear.”

About 15 minutes into the call, the dispatcher took other calls. Police said many stranded residents were calling that morning.

Stevens continued to weep. The dispatcher tried to describe to firefighters the stranded woman’s location.

“I’m on the phone with her,” she said. “She’s freaking out.”

Debra Stevens (CNN)

About 18 minutes into the call, the dispatcher asked a firefighter whether he could see Steven’s SUV. “Negative,” he said. There was confusion about her location.

Stevens cried uncontrollably.

“Miss Debbie you’re going to have to shut up,” the dispatcher said. “Can you honk your horn?”

“My horn is dead,” Stevens said. “Everything is dead.”

The water was climbing above the door of her SUV, she said. “Oh, lord help me,” she cried. The dispatcher said rescuers were looking for her.

“Oh my god, my car is starting to move,” Stevens cried.

“OK, listen to me, I know,” the dispatcher said. “I’m trying to get you help… I know you’re scared. Just hold on for me because I’ve got to take other calls.”

Stevens starting screaming. She said couldn’t breathe.

“I’m on the phone with her right now,” the dispatcher said to a rescuer. “She is legit freaking out.”

“I’m going to die,” Stevens said.

“Miss Debbie, you’re breathing just fine because you are screaming at me. So calm down. I know you’re scared. Hold on for me.”

Stevens is not heard again.

“Miss Debbie? Miss Debbie?” the dispatcher said. “Oh my God. She sounds like she’s under water now.”

The call ended at 5 a.m. ET

Rescuers reached Stevens’ SUV some 58 minutes later. They tried unsuccessfully to revive her.

Fort Smith police said in a statement that it released the audio recording of the call “with great reluctance” after requests from the media.

“The recording contains the audio of a dying person’s last moments as well as the interaction between her and the 911 operator,” the statement said.

“And while the operator’s response to this extremely tense and dynamic event sounds calloused and uncaring at times, sincere efforts were being made to locate and save Mrs. Stevens.”

Stevens’ first call during the emergency was to her mother in law, police said. She then dialed 911 from her cell phone.

Fort Smith fire and police units were inundated with 911 calls from people stranded in flood waters, the statement said. Stevens’ difficulty describing her location and flooding limited the ability of first responders to reach her, the statement said.

“I am heartbroken for this tragic loss of life and my prayers are with Debra’s family and friends,” Police Chief Danny Baker said in a statement.

“All of our first responders who attempted to save Mrs. Stevens are distraught over the outcome. For every one of us, saving lives is at the very core of who we are and why we do what we do. When we are unsuccessful, it hurts.”

The Stevens family did not respond to multiple requests by CNN for comment.

Police spokesman Aric Mitchell said the 911 operator had submitted her two weeks notice on August 9. She happened to be working her last shift the morning of the tragedy.

“The incident will certainly lead to us looking at policies within our existing Communications Unit but we have not completed a review at this time to make specific determinations,” Mitchell said.