'Don't know why you're freaking out': Arkansas woman drowns on phone with 911

FORT SMITH, Ark. (AP/KHBS/CNN) - Authorities in Arkansas are investigating after a now-former 911 dispatcher scolded a frantic newspaper delivery woman for driving into floodwaters before she drowned.

Debbie Stevens spent the last moments of her life on the phone with a 911 dispatcher who did little to calm her fear. (Source: Nancy Organ, KHBS, Hearst via CNN)

Police spokesman Aric Mitchell said Friday that Donna Reneau dispatched emergency personnel to find Debbie Stevens, who'd driven into an apartment complex parking lot to try to avoid flooding.

Stevens spent the last frantic moments of her life on the phone with Reneau, who dismissed and mocked her.

Stevens was out delivering newspapers Aug. 24 when floodwaters swept away her car.

She dialed 911 to beg for help, but Reneau answered and returned that panic with mockery and contempt.

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 was on the phone with 911 for about 24 minutes as water filled up her car.

Reneau: "You're not going to die. I don't know why you're freaking out. It's OK. I know the water level is high."
Stevens: "I'm scared. I'm sorry."
Reneau: "I understand that but you freaking out - doing nothing but losing your oxygen up in there so calm down."
Stevens: "When are they going to be here?"
Reneau: "As soon as they get there."

Police and firefighters responded to the scene about 12 minutes after Stevens called, but it took more than an hour for them to reach her. By the time they got to Stevens, she had died.

Her body was recovered from her SUV in a nearby creek.

Body camera footage shows the area flooded in several feet of water.

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."

Danny Baker, the interim police chief, said he understands the outrage.

"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. I don't want us interacting with anyone in that way, whether it's a life and death situation or not," he said.

He said Reneau had turned in her two week's notice and the call with Stevens came in on her last shift.

Even then, Baker said he doesn't know why Stevens' call wasn't made a top priority.

"I don't think the dispatcher realized or understood the severity of the situation," he said.

Baker said the police department will investigate further to see if policies were followed and if those can be improved.

But he said even then, in this instance the dispatcher wouldn't have been fired.

"She did nothing criminally wrong. I'm not even going to go so far as saying she violated policy," Baker said.

Messages left at phone numbers for Reneau weren't immediately returned Friday.

Copyright 2019 Associated Press, KHBS, Hearst via CNN. All rights reserved.