Arkansas officials have launched an investigation after the Fort Smith Police Department recently released the audio recording of a woman drowning to death while on the phone with a surly 911 dispatcher. Police and firefighters reportedly took more than an hour before recovering her body.
At 4:38 a.m. on August 24, then-911 dispatcher Donna Reneau received a call from Debbie Stevens who had driven her SUV into an apartment complex in an attempt to avoid flooding. Stevens begged for help while Reneau incessantly dismissed her concerns.
The Fort Smith Police Department released audio recordings of the call.
Stevens: “Please help me. I don’t wanna die.”
Reneau: “You’re not going to die – hold on for a minute.”
Stevens: “Well, I need, um, I’m scared. I’m sorry.”
Reneau: “I understand that you’re scared but there’s nothing I can do sitting in a chair so you’re going to have to hold on, and I’m going to send you somebody, OK?”
Stevens remained on the phone with Reneau for approximately 24 minutes as water filled up her vehicle.
Stevens: “I’m scared. I’ve never had anything like this happen to me before.”
Reneau: “This will teach you next time don’t drive in the water.”
Stevens: “Couldn’t see it, ma’am. I’m sorry or I wouldn’t have.”
Reneau: “I don’t see how you didn’t see it. You had to go right over it, so…”
At 5:58 a.m. on August 24, police and firefighters recovered Stevens’ corpse and removed her body from the vehicle. They attempted CPR but were unable to revive her after she drowned in her car.
According to police, her vehicle became trapped in floodwaters and floated into a creek at the end of the road.
“I understand that listening to a person going through the panic that Ms. Stevens was in those final moments of her life, we would all hope that we would get a little bit better response than perhaps she was given. I don’t want us interacting with anyone in that way, whether it’s a life and death situation or not,” stated Fort Smith Police Chief Danny Baker.
The police chief added, “We can’t investigate someone who no longer works here. However, an investigation into our policies, our responses, our dispatch center, I’ve talked to the fire chief, we are looking at what we can do to increase training for our dispatchers, swift water rescues, and other things.”
Reneau had already turned in her two week’s notice, and the call with Stevens came in during her last shift.
Referring to Reneau, Baker said, “She did nothing criminally wrong. I’m not even going to go so far as saying she violated policy.”
A memorial has been set up in remembrance for Stevens.