On August 24, a 47-year-old Arkansas woman delivering local newspapers early in the morning was trapped in her SUV by a flash flood. The harrowing 22-minute call that Debra Stevens made to 911 showed the desperate, frightened woman dealing with a dispatcher who callously told her, “This will teach you next time don’t drive in the water,” before Stevens died trapped in her car.
A news release from the Fort Smith Police department stated that Stevens “was delivering newspapers for the Southwest Times Record when swift waters due to flash flooding swept Mrs. Stevens’ SUV away, settling it in a copse of trees off the roadway and amid rising waters.” The news release added that the 911 operator who took the call dispatched Fort Smith Fire and Police units, but those units “were inundated with 911 calls from other citizens also stranded in flood waters.”
The news release added that Stevens had difficulty pinpointing exactly where she was. Once her location was established, first responders could not get to her because of the rapidly rising water. The news release added, “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.”
KCTV5 reported that some of the exchange between Stevens and the dispatcher went like this:
Stevens: “I have an emergency — a severe emergency. I can’t get out, and I’m scared to death, ma’am. Can you please help me?” Stevens repeated she was going to die, crying and saying she didn’t know how to swim.
Dispatcher: “You’re not going to die. 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 worried that the water pouring into her car would ruin her new phone.
Dispatcher: “Do you really care about your brand new phone? You’re over there crying for your life. Who cares about your phone?”
Stevens said she hadn’t seen the water and had plunged into it; that the water was now as high as her chest. She added that she could see people in the distance who were likely laughing at her. She apologized to the dispatcher, adding that she felt she was about to throw up.
Dispatcher: “Well, you’re in water, you can throw up. It’s not going to matter.”
Stevens, weeping, asked the dispatcher to pray with her. NBC News reported that the dispatcher replied, “You go ahead and start off the prayer. I’ll listen to you, I sure will.”
Stevens: “Please help and get me out of this water, dear Father.” Then she apologized again for her rudeness.
Dispatcher: “This will teach you next time don’t drive in the water.”
Stevens: “I couldn’t see it ma’am. I’m sorry or I wouldn’t have.” She said she had delivered the newspaper on the same route for 21 years and never seen anything like the problem she faced.
Dispatcher: “I don’t know how you didn’t see it. You had to go right over it. The water just didn’t appear.”
15 minutes had passed; the dispatcher took other calls. 18 minutes into the call, firefighters said they still couldn’t find Stevens’ vehicle; Stevens was weeping . The dispatcher told her, “Miss Debbie, you’re going to have to shut up. Can you honk your horn?”
Stevens responded, “My horn is dead. Everything is dead.” She said the water was above the vehicle’s door, praying, “Oh, Lord help me.” Then she cried, “Oh my God, my car is starting to move.” The dispatcher responded, “Okay, listen to me, I know. 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 screamed that she couldn’t breathe. Dispatcher to a responder, “I’m on the phone with her right now. She is legit freaking out.”
Stevens: “I’m going to die!”
Dispatcher: “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.”
That was the last time Stevens was heard; the dispatcher said, “Miss Debbie? Miss Debbie? Oh my God. She sounds like she’s under water now.”
Roughly an hour later, rescuers found Stevens’ car.
The Southwest Times Record reported that Neal Martin, Fort Smith City Director, said Stevens taught preschool ministry at East Side Baptist Church, calling her “a model of being a servant, doing what God called you to do, and serving your community and friends … If people were willing to give of themselves like she did, I think our city, our state and our country would be a lot better.”
Interim Police Chief Danny Baker released a statement saying, “I am heartbroken for this tragic loss of life and my prayers are with Debra’s 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. When we are unsuccessful, it hurts.”
The dispatcher had already submitted her resignation earlier in August; her last day on the job was reportedly the day Stevens died.