Debra Stevens and Donna Reneau

‘That will teach you next time’: Newspaper driver dies in flood water after 911 operator scolds her, implies she should have known better

An Arkansas woman who died last weekend during a flood pleaded for help from a 911 operator, who told the terrified caller to “shut up” and made other disturbing comments, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reports.

Last Saturday, Debra Stevens (pictured left), 47, was delivering newspapers when floodwaters swept her vehicle away in Forth Smith, Arkansas. Newly released audio of Stevens’ 911 call reveals the dispatcher, Donna Reneau (pictured right), blamed Stevens for putting herself in the situation.

“I’m scared,” Stevens said in the call. “I’ve never had anything like this happen to me before.”

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“This will teach you next time don’t drive in the water,” Reneau replied.

“Couldn’t see it, ma’am. I’m sorry or I wouldn’t have,” Stevens said, prompting Reneau to say, “I don’t see how you didn’t see it. You had to go right over it, so…”

In another part of the conversation, Reneau told Stevens: “You freaking out, doing nothing but losing your oxygen up in there, so calm down.”

Stevens also asked when authorities would arrive.

“As soon as they get there,” Reneau told her.

“I don’t want to die … ma’am, please send somebody fast to help me. I’m scared,” Stevens pleaded. “I can’t swim. I can’t swim. I’m going to drown. Please, I’m scared.”

“You’re not going to drown,” Reneau told her. “Just calm down.”

Later in the call, Reneau told Stevens, “Debbie you’re gonna have to shut up, okay? I need you to listen to me.”

A few minutes later, around 5 a.m., the line dropped, according to the New York Post. The call lasted 22 minutes in total.

Rescue crews took more than an hour to reach Stevens because of the floodwaters and because she was having difficulty describing precisely where she was located. By the time emergency responders got to the vehicle, Stevens had already drowned.

When Stevens’ 911 call came in, Reneau was working her last shift in the job; she had resigned two weeks earlier, according to Interim Forth Smith Police Chief Danny Baker.

“I am heartbroken for this tragic loss of life and my prayers are with Debra’s family and friends,” Baker wrote 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.”

Authorities are investigating whether Reneau followed protocol. Baker said he doesn’t think she fully appreciated the severity of the situation.

“I understand that listening to a person going through the panic that Ms. Stephens 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,” Baker said. “I don’t want us interacting with anyone in that way, whether it’s a life and death situation or not.”

Even so, Baker said Reneau likely would not have been fired because of how she handled the call. He said her actions were not “criminally wrong” and may not have even violated policy.

Baker added, “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.”

A memorial has been established to remember Stevens.

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[Feature Photo: Debra Stevens/Facebook; Donna Reneau/Fort Smith Police Department]