published Wednesday, April 13th, 2011

Mom drives van into river, killing self, 3 kids

  • photo
    A boat ramp where a woman drove her minivan into the Hudson River is seen in Newburgh, N.Y., Wednesday, April 13, 2011. The woman, who had just been involved in a domestic dispute, loaded her four children into a minivan Tuesday night before letting one out and driving the rest of them into the Hudson River, firefighters said. The woman and three young children were killed. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

NEWBURGH, N.Y. (AP) — A 10-year-old boy clambered out the window of a minivan and swam to shore after his mother drove into the frigid Hudson River, killing herself and her three other children, officials said. A relative had called police to report a domestic dispute shortly before.

Lashaun Armstrong was the only survivor after his mother, 25-year-old Lashanda Armstrong, plunged the van into the river late Tuesday in this city 60 miles north of New York City.

When the van hit the water around 8 p.m., it was just past high tide and the Hudson was flowing swiftly to the south, pulling the vehicle some 25 yards out into the rain- and melt-swollen river, Fire Chief Michael Vatter said.

The chief figured the van floated in the 45-degree water for no more than two minutes.

"He got out of the car, got up onto the boat ramp, turned around and it was gone," Vatter said.

The boy's great-aunt, Angela Gilliam, told The Associated Press that he was "doing good" Wednesday and "taking it all in."

"He rolled the window down and got out," Gilliam said.

In the van with Lashanda Armstrong were Landon Pierre, 5, Lance Pierre, 2, and 11-month-old Lainaina Pierre, police said. Her husband and the father of the three dead children, Jean Pierre, was questioned. Police would not give details of the interview or say if the father had been charged with anything.

Gilliam, Lashanda Armstrong's aunt, says she spoke to her niece earlier Tuesday and she was "not too good." Gilliam later called police in Newburgh about her niece's well-being and they acknowledge that officers went to the apartment. Neither Gilliam nor police provided other details about the domestic call.

By the time police got there, Armstrong had already taken the fatal plunge with her children.

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

Armstrong seemed stressed but not depressed when she picked up the children Tuesday at the Young and Unique Christian Development Child Care, said Shaniesha Strange, supervisor in the infant room.

"It just seemed like she was having a bad day," Strange said. "I could see that something was kind of bothering her but she didn't talk about it. She wasn't one to talk about her business. The only thing she'd say was that she was so alone. She's a single parent, she takes great care of her kids, goes to school, and works. She really needed a helping hand."

Vatter said a passer-by saw Lashaun Armstrong come out of the river, picked up the soaking wet boy and took him to a nearby fire department. Vatter said the boy was so distraught that he had difficulty talking but ultimately told firefighters what happened. Rescuers went immediately to the river but it was too late to save the four victims.

Firefighters and police officers responded to the 45-degree river with boats. Divers searched for the minivan for about an hour before finding it submerged in 10 feet of water. They used a heavy-duty tow truck to pull it up the boat ramp and onto land.

Everyone inside was dead.

Armstrong lived in an apartment in a gritty part of this humble river city. Several neighbors on Wednesday recalled her as an attentive mother who balanced care of her children with an outside job. They were shocked by the news.

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

Neighbors said the children seemed energetic and happy and would play on the block and ride bikes.

"You know kids, they make noise, they play around," said Shantay Means, a downstairs neighbor.

The boat ramp was unguarded by gate or chain. There was no sign that anything tragic had happened save for a single teddy bear left at the end of a dock that runs alongside the boat ramp.

Newburgh, which has about 30,000 residents, sits on the western shore of the part of the river that runs south through New York state and eventually splits New York and New Jersey.

A similar incident occurred in 2006, about 20 miles south of Newburgh.

In 2007, Victor Han, of Queens, was sentenced to three years of probation after pleading guilty to child endangerment. Han admitted he knew he was putting his daughters at risk when he stepped out of the family minivan on Bear Mountain in June 2006, leaving them with their mother, 35-year-old Hejin Han. She then drove the Honda Odyssey off a 300-foot drop, killing herself. The mother was killed but the children somehow survived.

It's also reminiscent of the case of a South Carolina woman who drowned her young sons in 1994.

Susan Smith is serving a life sentence for killing 3-year-old Michael and 14-month-old Alex by strapping them into their car seats and driving the car into a pond. Smith originally claimed she was carjacked before the truth came out.

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