(WWTI) — Authorities in Arkansas have released audio recordings of a 911 call between an operator and a woman who was moments from dying in a flash flood, in which the dispatcher can be heard at times chastising the caller for getting her vehicle stuck in the fast-rising waters, and even, at one point, telling her to “shut up.”
Fort Smith police got a call from Debra Stevens, 47, of Fort Smith, on Saturday at around 4:38 a.m. She had been delivering newspapers for the Southwest Times Record when her sport utility vehicle was swept away in a flood and then trapped among trees as the waters continued to rise, police said. Stevens first called a family member, Fort Smith police said, and then she called 911.
“The 911 operator who took the call dispatched Fort Smith Fire and Police units who were inundated with 911 calls from other citizens also stranded in floodwaters,” Fort Smith police said in a statement released on Thursday along with the audio from the 911 call.
Stevens had trouble describing her exact location during the 22-minute call, police said, and flooding limited the ability of first responders to reach her.
“Please help me! I don’t want to die,” Stevens said during the 911 call.
“You’re not going to die. Hold on for one minute,” the operator said in return.
“Well, um, I’m scared. I’m sorry,” Stevens said.
“I understand that you are scared but there is nothing I can do sitting in this chair,” the operator said. “So, you are going to have to hold on and I’m going to send you somebody. OK?”
The fire department was dispatched to the scene about three minutes after Stevens reached the operator, according to a timeline released by Fort Smith police. About three minutes later, the police department was also dispatched. At 4:50 a.m., both departments had arrived to where Stevens was but could not find her SUV. By, 4:59 a.m., first responders were asking for a boat to be sent to the area because the main roads were blocked by water.
Later on during the 911 call, the dispatcher assures Stevens that she is not going to die.
“I don’t know why you are freaking out. It’s OK. I know the water level is high,” the operator said.
“I’m scared!” Stevens said.
“I understand that but you freaking out, doing nothing but losing oxygen up in there,” the operator said. “So calm down.”
Stevens can be heard crying on the phone.
“I’m scared. I’ve never had anything happen to me like this before,” she said.
“Well, this will teach you next time, don’t drive in the water,” the operator said.
“I couldn’t see it, ma’am. I’m sorry I wouldn’t have,” Steven said.
“I don’t see how you didn’t see it. You had to go right over it so,” the operator said.
At one point, Stevens got frantic and had this exchange with the dispatcher.
“These people are all standing out here watching me,” Stevens said.
“Miss Debbie, you’re gong to have to shut up. OK. I need you to listen,” said the dispatcher.
In its press release, Fort Smith police said that “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.”
Police did not identify the operator.
ABC Fayetteville and Fort Smith affiliate KHBS/KHOG-TV said the dispatcher had resigned prior to that call and that her last shift was scheduled to be the morning in which she took Stevens’ call.
According to the police timeline, the call between Stevens and the operator ended at 5 a.m. Two minutes later, first responders had reported finding Stevens’ vehicle but were not able to reach the SUV.
“When first responders were finally able to pinpoint the location of Mrs. Stevens’ vehicle, the swift, rising water made immediate rescue impossible. 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 said.
By 5:16 a.m., a rescue boat had arrived. At 5:58 a.m., rescuers removed Stevens’ body from the SUV and began CPR but she had already drowned.
Interim Police Chief Danny Baker said that the dispatcher had done “nothing criminally wrong.”
“I understand that listening to a person going through the panic that Mrs. Stevens was in those final moments of her life, we all hope that we would get a little better response than perhaps what she was given. I don’t want us interacting with anyone in that way whether it’s a life and death situation or not,” he told KHBS/KHOG-TV. “I don’t think the dispatcher realized or understood the severity of the situation.”
In a statement, he said he was heartbroken about Stevens’ death and offered his prayers to her family and friends.
“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,” Baker said. “When we are unsuccessful, it hurts.”