Debra Stevens needs help – and quickly. A flash flood has enveloped her car in water, and she can’t immediately see a way out. So Stevens naturally decides to dial 911 to ask for assistance. On the other end of the line, though, dispatcher Donna Reneau answers the phone. And while Reneau tries to aid Stevens, the responder also delivers a seemingly chilling response to the caller’s desperate cries for help.
So how did Stevens find herself in this mess? Well, rather than stay home during bad weather, Stevens had opted to hit the road. She worked a paper route in that area of Fort Smith, Arkansas, you see. This meant that she often drove around in the dark during the early morning hours. When Stevens called 911 during the flooding incident, in fact, it was 4:38 a.m. She even told Reneau that she hadn’t seen that the road ahead had flooded with water before it was too late.
Such a situation would be enough to make anyone panic – so it’s no surprise that you can hear Stevens’ desperation through her recorded 911 call. And the stranded worker remained on the line for 22 painful minutes as Reneau worked with her on the other end of the line. But the dispatcher seemingly didn’t do so in a way that you might expect for someone in her position.
In fact, many people who have listened to the audio of Stevens’ life-or-death phone call can’t initially believe what they are hearing. The recording makes plain the arguably disturbing sentiments that come straight from Reneau’s mouth. The woman – whose job it was to save Stevens from the flood – even had some people questioning if she had done more harm than good.
Those who knew Debra Stevens, though, described her to the Southwest Times Record with a slew of warm and positive adjectives. Some called her “loving” and “kind,” for instance, while others labeled her “gentle” and “committed.” Some interviewees considered her a best friend too. And others knew her as a hard-working employee and co-worker.
Fort Smith, Arkansas, also painted the backdrop for much of Stevens’ life. She was born there, in fact, and she attended high school and community college within the city limits. Her husband, Marcus, had also grown up there. And Stevens and her mom, Nancy, taught preschoolers at a Baptist Church in Fort Smith as well.
Of course, that was just one way that Stevens wove her way into the Fort Smith community. For instance, city director Neal Martin recalled that she had campaigned hard for him to earn his position. Every day for an entire month she had in fact handed out flyers – leaving Martin in disbelief of the dedication she had shown to him and his work.
Martin said, “[Stevens] was 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.”
Latonya Stolz – who knew the 47-year-old Stevens for four decades – noted that her friend had treated her work with diligence and care. Stolz said, “She was a hardworking woman who was very dedicated to her job.” Stolz also said that Stevens, in her role as a newspaper delivery woman for the Southwest Times Record, would “deliver in the snow and ice when almost no one else would.”
Stolz went on to claim that Stevens was further committed “to pleasing others.” The longtime buddy apparently experienced this aspect of Stevens’ personality many times during their four-decade-long friendship. The women grew up going on church trips together, in fact, and as adults they switched to dinners. On such occasions, they’d apparently “laugh and talk for hours.”
Sadly, however, Stevens would find herself involved in a conversation with a much different tone on the morning of August 24, 2019. How did this happen? Well, before dawn, the ever-dedicated delivery woman hit the road to ensure that those on her route received their morning papers. But weather conditions quickly became dangerous – and Stevens found herself in the midst of a flash flood.
Flash floods tend to occur in low-lying areas, such as dried-out lakes, depressions or rivers. In many cases, too, a flash flood arises in tandem with heavy rainfall – whether it be from a hurricane, thunderstorm or even snowstorm meltwater. In Fort Smith on August 24, then, more than four inches of rain had fallen to trigger flooding.
And in the case of a flash flood, the United States National Weather Service issues some simple advice: “turn around, don’t drown.” That’s because water might well rise suddenly and powerfully. So what appears to be a passable stream could end up sweeping away a car and the passengers contained within.
In Stevens’ case, though, the flash flood seemingly appeared so suddenly that she didn’t see the water on the road ahead of her. So Stevens drove up to it – and quickly found it creeping up to chest level. Panicked, the delivery woman initially phoned her mother-in-law, who had also gone out that morning to deliver papers.
Then Stevens called 911. And as we know, the dispatcher on the other end of the line was Donna Reneau. The emergency services worker also spent 22 minutes on the phone with Stevens – but couldn’t get first responders to the stranded woman in time. Instead, the 47-year-old’s gray Mazda CX-9 got swept away in the dangerous flood waters.
It’s worth noting, too, that Reneau had reportedly spent the previous five years of her life working as a dispatcher in Fort Smith. And it seemed as though she had excelled in the job too. In February of 2019, in fact, the city’s police department named her the Fire Dispatcher of the Year after a half-decade of service.
Interim Fort Smith Police Chief Danny Baker provided a written statement after Stevens’ fateful phone call to Reneau. In it, he described how the dispatcher had climbed the ranks and was permitted to train new recruits in the role. But Reneau had also recently decided to leave her post with the city’s dispatch.
In fact, by the time Reneau answered Stevens’ call, she had already given in her fortnight’s notice. That time period had come to a close, too, and the woman had clocked in for her last shift on August 24, 2019. Yes, as it turned out, Reneau’s conversation with preschool teacher Stevens would be the last one she’d ever have on the job.
As Baker put it, Reneau had served her post well. He said she was “a good, decent human being who has saved countless lives in the last five years.” But that likely won’t be what people remember Reneau for. Baker told ABC News, “It is so unfortunate that her entire career will be defined by this single incident.”
To place the event in context, though, the morning of the flash flood had pushed the Fort Smith Police Department to its limits. They only had four people on hand to answer seven emergency lines, in fact. And those dispatchers had only nine police officers on the ground who could help the flood victims whose calls started pouring in.
To make matters worse, Stevens had no precise idea where she was when she called into the 911 dispatch. This made Reneau’s job – sending first responders to the scene to help her – a difficult task. And it proved to be one of the reasons why the frantic driver and the busy dispatcher remained on the phone for a grueling 22 minutes.
A recording of the phone call captures Stevens’ initial description of her situation. “I turned off the road while I was doing my newspapers, and I’m flooded over here,” she reports to Reneau in a relatively calm voice. “It’s all the way up to my windows, and I can’t get out, and I’m scared to death, ma’am.”
As Stevens begs for help for the first time, Reneau responds in a tone that she presumably wants the caller to mirror. She says softly, “I need you to calm down. I need you to tell me where you are.” Stevens can’t provide an answer to that question, though. She replies, “I don’t know, ma’am.”
Although Stevens’ tone ticks slightly toward frantic, Reneau keeps her cool. She asks the caller what kind of car she’s driving to help first responders identify it. Stevens responds with additional information. “It’s a gray SUV, and the water’s all the way up to my window. And it’s coming in my windows. I mean, I’m floating in water right now, ma’am,” she says.
At this point, Stevens really begins to beg for the first time in what will be a more-than-20-minute panic as she faces death. She says, “Please help me. I don’t want to die.” Reneau calmly responds, “You’re not going to die. Hold on for a second.” Then Stevens explains how she got into such a dire spot in the first place.
Stevens says, “I’m sorry, I couldn’t see the water when I came up on it, ma’am. It just all of a sudden hit me.” But Reneau pays little mind to Stevens’ panic. Instead, she says, “You say you’re in a gray van?” This isn’t what Stevens had said earlier, and she repeats it all. “I’m in a gray SUV, a Mazda CX-9,” she says.
The conversation begins to turns desperate as Stevens becomes more and more terrified of the rising waters enveloping her. She repeats that she fears death. The newspaper delivery woman cries and asks when help will come for her. She tells Reneau she doesn’t know how to swim.
As the minutes pass, though, Reneau’s patience seems to wear thin. She eventually replies, “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.” The dispatcher’s words seemingly come out in a callous manner.
But Stevens repeats herself while on the line with Reneau. She apologizes once more for not seeing the flood waters ahead of her. And this time, the dispatcher has a response. Reneau says, “I don’t see how you didn’t see it. You had to go right over it.”
Stevens then reports to Reneau that she can see people watching her from the balconies of an apartment building nearby. She wonders why no one has stepped out to help her. Reneau retorts, “They’re not going to get their self in danger because you put yourself in danger.” The dispatcher does, however, report that some bystanders have at least called in to report Stevens’ situation.
Also during the conversation, Stevens tells Reneau that she fears she has to vomit. But in a seemingly non-reassuring fashion, the dispatcher replies, “Well, you’re in the water, you can throw up. It’s not going to matter.” But nothing can deter Stevens from seeking support from – and apparently showing her respect to – Reneau.
Stevens first asks Reneau to join her in prayer, which the dispatcher obliges. The newspaper delivery woman says, “Please help and get me out of this water, dear Father.” And with that prayer comes yet another apology for putting herself in a dangerous situation. Reneau’s response to this, however, has raised a few eyebrows.
Reneau says to Stevens, “This will teach you next time don’t drive in the water.” But as the phone call goes on, it seems that other Fort Smith residents have phoned in as well. The recording even captures Reneau on the line with more people, attempting to balance all of the calls.
In Stevens’ car, however, the water apparently continues to rise, and Stevens shares more of her fears with Reneau. She worries that the water surrounding her will destroy her new phone. But Reneau responds, “You’re over there crying for your life. Who cares about your phone?”
Eventually, though, the phone call comes to a heartbreaking end. Reneau in fact attempts to get first responders to Stevens’ location while the delivery woman cries on the phone. The dispatcher tells the firefighters, “I’m on the phone with her. She’s freaking out.” And if the audio recording heard that, then maybe Stevens did, too.
Things only get worse when firefighters find themselves unable to locate Stevens. Stevens also hears them say so and starts to bawl. This prompts Reneau to say, “Miss Debbie, you’re going to have to shut up.” She then asks the preschool teacher to honk her car horn so firefighters can find her – but it doesn’t work. Stevens says, “Everything is dead.”
Then, in a final moment of panic, Stevens screams as her SUV apparently starts sliding with the flood waters. She shrieks, “I’m going to die!” Reneau says, “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.” But it seems that Stevens can’t hold on any longer.
Reneau continues to call out for Stevens as the line goes silent. Reneau says, “She sounds like she’s under water now.” At 5 a.m., the call ends. And nearly an hour later, first responders finally find Stevens’ SUV. They try reviving her, but she had drowned in the sudden flood.
In the aftermath of the floods, the audio of Stevens’ phone call hit public airwaves. That’s when it became clear that people were outraged at Reneau’s cool treatment of the woman. But the Fort Smith police defended their dispatcher. They said in a statement, “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 Chief Baker and the rest of the Fort Smith department apparently felt devastated by the loss too. He said in a statement, “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.”