"Help us — our mom is trying to kill us!" a young child screamed as a pregnant woman drove her minivan — with three young children inside — into the ocean in Florida, a trucker who waded into the frigid Atlantic waters to rescue them said Wednesday.
Tim Tesseneer, a truck driver and former volunteer firefighter visiting from North Carolina, was one of the first men to reach the van Tuesday in the heavy surf. He and other passersby dived in to pull the children — two girls and a boy, ages 3, 9 and 10 — to safety through a window and a hatchback.
The children, who weren't badly hurt, were treated at a hospital and were in state custody, Volusia County Sheriff Ben Johnson said Wednesday. The driver, identified as Ebony Wilkerson, 32, of Cross. S.C., was undergoing a mental evaluation Wednesday, and no charges had been filed.
"We thought it was so brave of them to put themselves in danger to help someone else in such an emergency," said a witness, Taylor Quintin, who was in town from Vermont on vacation.
Tesseneer said he initially spotted the minivan as it drove across the dunes of Daytona Beach.
At first, Tesseneer, who lives in Rutherfordton, N.C., thought the driver was on a joyride.
It looked like they were "just having fun — 'hey, look at us, we're breaking the law,' whatever," he said. "Then we got to hearing kids sort of screaming, and I swear I heard I heard one of them say, 'Help!'"
Tesseneer and a second passerby managed to talk briefly to Wilkerson, who had one of the children sitting in her lap. With a "blank, scary look" on her face, she told the men: 'We're OK. We're going to be fine,'" Tesseneer said.
And then she turned left and drove straight into the water.
"All I could think about was Susan Smith," Tesseneer said — referring to another South Carolina woman who was convicted of murder after she confessed to rolling her car into a lake with her two young children inside it in 1994.
What happened next was captured on video by a Canadian tourist:
Tesseneer said he heard one of the children in the van cry out: "'Please help us. Our mom is trying to kill us!'"
"I just lost all feeling," he said. "All I could think about was we're getting the kids out."
They did get the kids out.
Incredibly, officers had spoken to Wilkerson just 2½ hours earlier, after a relative pleaded with police to check on the woman's well-being.
In a 911 call (audio) released Wednesday by the sheriff's department, a clearly frustrated woman told dispatchers that her sister — who she says fled South Carolina with her three kids because she was being abused by her husband — was "talking about Jesus and that there's demons in my house and that I'm trying to control her."
"She's, like, having psychosis or something," the woman says on the redacted audio.
The woman checked Wilkerson into a hospital Monday, but Wilkerson signed herself out Tuesday morning, she says.
"She's still not all here. She's trying to drive, and I'm trying to stop her," the woman says. "And she has her kids, so I took her keys."
Then she says that while she's been talking, Wilkerson has somehow found a second set of keys — and "she's leaving and ... she's got the kids in the car with her."
Officers who had been dispatched to the woman's home were redirected to find Wilkerson's black Honda Odyssey. When they reached her, she told officers that she was headed to a shelter because she was afraid of her husband, said Johnson, the Volusia sheriff.
And because Wilkerson was lucid, officers couldn't do anything to help her, Johnson said.
Erin McClam of NBC News contributed to this report.
First published March 5 2014, 4:43 AM