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Witnesses tell of first moments after NY drownings

/ Source: msnbc.com staff and news service reports

The awful truth of Lashaun Armstrong's story took only moments to sink in: The 10-year-old's mother had just driven a minivan carrying him and his three siblings into the Hudson River.

"I got out of the car and went halfway in the water to see if I could see their car," Meave Ryan, 31, told . Ryan checked for the submerged minivan and then drove the boy to the fire department, she told the newspaper.

The fire department in Newburgh, N.Y., was practically empty and all the trucks out on call, Ryan said.  "We knocked on the dispatcher's door," she told The New York Times.

Lashaun stood shivering and soaking wet in the firehouse, struggling to get the words out: His mother, 25-year-old LaShanda Armstrong, had driven their minivan off a boat ramp and into the river, taking Landon Pierre, 5, Lance Pierre, 2, and 11-month-old Laianna Pierre with her.

All of them died.  Only Lashaun survived, managing to open the driver's window and escape the van just before it slipped beneath the surface.

NEWBURGH, NY - APRIL 13: The area is seen where Lashanda Armstrong, 25, loaded her four children into a minivan on the evening of April 12 and drove the vehicle off a boat ramp into the freezing Hudson River April 13, 2011 in Newburgh, New York. Armstrong's 10-year-old son, Lashaun Armstrong, survived after he climbed over his mother and out of the window to safety as the car sped into the water, but his three siblings Landon Pierce, 5, Lance Pierce, 2, and Lainaina Pierce, 11 months, drowned with their mother. (Photo by Christopher Capozziello/Getty Images)Christopher Capozziello / Getty Images North America

'Screaming for help'
Ryan said that when she first saw the boy, he was waving his arms at a string of passing cars.

"He was screaming for help," she told the newspaper. "He said, 'My mommy just drove the car in the water.'"

Other cars drove by the boy standing on the side of the road, Ryan told the Times.

Lashaun told her what had upset his mother so much: "There was an argument about cheating, that his stepfather was cheating on his mother," she recalled.

Lashaun said the boy's mother had called a family member, saying: "I'm sorry, I'm going to do something crazy, you have to forgive me," according to the newspaper.

The newspaper quoted Ryan as saying that Lashaun's mother held her children as the minivan slipped into the river, saying: "If I’m going to die, you're going to die with me."

Angela Gilliam, aunt of Lashandra Armstrong, is comforted by a relative near a boat launch at the Hudson River, where Armstrong and three of her children drowned, in Newburgh, New York April 13, 2011. Lashandra Armstrong, 25, and sons Landon Pierce, 5, and Lance Pierre, 2, and daughter, Lainaina Pierce, 11 months, were found dead in a submerged minivan she drove into the Hudson, after her 10-year-old son Laushaun escaped and alerted authorities, officials said on Wednesday. REUTERS/Mike Segar (UNITED STATES - Tags: DISASTER CRIME LAW SOCIETY)Mike Segar / X90033

On the same evening, LaShanda's aunt, Angela Gilliam, had called the police, according to The Associated Press.  Gilliam was worried about her niece's well-being and said there was a domestic tussle going on at the younger woman's apartment in this hardscrabble city on New York's Hudson River.

Police headed to the apartment but by the time they got there, it was empty.

'She was so alone'
Earlier Tuesday, Armstrong appeared stressed when she picked up children at the Young and Unique Christian Development Child Care, said Shaniesha Strange, supervisor in the infant room.

"The only thing she'd say was that she was so alone," Strange said Wednesday. "She's a single parent. She takes great care of her kids, goes to school and works. She really needed a helping hand."

Meanwhile, the woman's sister and brother appeared on the TODAY show Thursday morning and told NBC News that she had become withdrawn in the past few weeks, but that they never thought she would take such drastic action.

"Something got under her and clipped her where she felt that there was nothing left," said Lenny Armstrong.

Her sister, Darice, said she was "just really proud of my nephew that he had the strength and courage to get out."

Questioning
Earlier, police questioned the man they identified as the father of the three dead children, Jean Pierre, but did not give details. He apparently didn't live with the mother and children and could not immediately be located for comment.

Hetty Minatee, another teacher at the day care center, said Armstrong had enrolled the four children there in September. At first Jean Pierre would come in with Armstrong and sometimes would pick up the kids.

"A couple weeks ago, she came in a little upset," Minatee said. "She said, 'Miss Minatee, I don't want the father to pick the kids up or have any contact with them.' She said she was trying to get a court order so he could never see the kids again."

From Armstrong's apartment, she would have taken a right turn onto Washington Street, site of George Washington's headquarters during the American Revolution, and driven straight toward the river, downhill all the way. She'd be familiar with the boat launch, neighbors said. She watched fireworks over the river from the corner near her house. A half-mile drive would have gotten her there. A hard left then a quick right turn would take the van into the water.

Fire Chief Michael Vatter said the vehicle went under in the 45-degree water within two minutes.

Divers searched for about an hour before finding the minivan submerged in 10 feet of water about 25 yards from the shore. They used a tow truck to pull it up the ramp.

Police said there was no history of domestic violence at the address.

Lashaun is staying with Gilliam and "doing fine," she said.

'Very good mom'
"She was a good mother. She was going through some stuff," Gilliam said of her niece. "Nobody knows what my niece went through." She would not elaborate.

Neighbors in the city of about 30,000 said the children seemed energetic and happy and would play on the block and ride bikes.

"She was a very good mom," said Tina Claybourne. "She took care of her kids. She always was with her kids."

Another neighbor, Sharon Ramirez, told The New York Times that while the relationship with the father of the three youngest children "looked perfect," there were tensions under the surface.

"They had a rocky relationship," she told the paper, adding that she herself had carried on a three-month relationship with Pierre while Armstrong was pregnant with the youngest child.

Armstrong's landlord told the newspaper that she had asked him twice to change the locks to keep Pierre out.

"She said she doesn't want him here," the landlord John Boubaris told the newspaper, adding, "He was here all the time."