A 911 dispatcher in Arkansas allegedly mocked and chastised a drowning woman moments before she died.
“I’m soaking wet, I’m sick, and I don’t know what to do, ma’am,” Debbie Stevens cried over the telephone, as she raced to explain to an emergency dispatcher how a flash flood had swept up her vehicle.
“I don’t want to die,” Stevens told dispatcher Donna Reneau.
Authorities received Steven’s phone call shortly after 4:30 a.m. on Aug. 24, according to a statement released by Fort Smith Police Department on Thursday. She had been delivering local newspapers in her SUV at the time of the flooding. She told the woman on the other end of the phone that she had cut through a parking lot after being diverted because of a road closure when floodwaters began to smash into her vehicle.
“I couldn’t see the water,” the 47-year-old explained. “And it just took me away and started pulling me.”
She told Renau that water was up to her neck. However, there was some public outrage at Renau's affect, after a recording of the troubling emergency call was released by Fort Smith police. People commented on the police department's statement expressing disbelief that the last thing the drowning woman heard was someone "chastising her."
At one point in the recording, Renau does appear to chide the woman for not seeing the water before it overtook her vehicle.
"I don't see how you didn't see it; you had to go right over it, so," the dispatcher said.
When Stevens continues to panic and becomes distressed that the call might drop, Renau tells the dying woman to, “Shut up.”
“She is legit freaking out,” Renau is overheard saying, presumably to her fellow responders, as the woman becomes increasingly hysterical before the line cuts out.
Renau was reportedly working her final shift, after quitting weeks earlier, according to the Washington Post. However, police denied any wrongdoing on the dispatcher’s part. She hasn’t been charged with any crime.
“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,” the police statement added.
Renau was first hired as a dispatcher by Fort Smith police in 2013 and was described as a “dedicated” employee. Earlier this year, she was showcased on Fort Smith’s Facebook feed as “Fire Dispatcher of the Year.”
Local authorities were reportedly overwhelmed with emergency calls from other individuals stranded by the flood, and by the time they had reached Stevens’ SUV, violent floodwaters prevented her immediate rescue.
“An officer on-scene removed his duty gear, donned a life vest, and was ready to enter the current tied to a rope but the speed and volume of water made this attempt futile,” Fort Smith police described.
“When first responders were finally able to reach Mrs. Stevens and extract her from the vehicle, she had tragically succumbed to drowning.”
They noted that Stevens’ was confused about her exact whereabouts, and had also placed a phone call to a family member before dialing 911 — other factors officials said also slowed emergency response time.
“I am heartbroken for this tragic loss of life and my prayers are with Debra’s family and friends,” said Danny Baker, Fort Smith’s Chief of Police.
“All of our first responders who attempted to save Mrs. Stevens are distraught over the outcome,” he added. “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.”
Fort Smith Police didn’t respond to Oxygen.com’s request for comment.
Wes Milam, a Fort Smith police captain, also appeared to be sympathetic towards Renau’s conduct in an interview with local newspaper the Times Record.
“When they call like that, [dispatchers] have to ascertain a lot of information, and when they get all this information, they have to bring the emotionality out of it to increase rationality,” Milam explained.
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