DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – It’s billed as “The World’s Most Famous Beach,” but Daytona Beach came close to becoming a deadly scene Tuesday evening when a pregnant mother drove her minivan packed with three children into the ocean, prompting lifeguards and bystanders to spring to their rescue.
“This is one of those areas on the beach where you can drive your car on the beach,” said Steve Barrett, a reporter for WFTV-TV, the ABC affiliate in Central Florida. Visitors have been driving their vehicles on the local sand since the middle part of the last century.
(Watch the raw video below. WARNING: An obscenity is uttered toward the end.)
Ebony Wilkerson, a 32-year-old from South Carolina, had been talking about "demons" just hours before driving her black Honda Odyssey into the surf shortly before 5 p.m. in front of horrified onlookers, according to Daytona Beach police.
The van carried her three children, a 10-year-old girl, 9-year-old boy and a 3-year-old girl, who was strapped into a booster seat.
"My friend pointed out that there was a car getting really close to the beach, and actually started driving on the water," eyewitness Taylor Quintin told CBS News. "I saw a kid in the back, like waving his arms around, like screaming, 'Help us! Help us!' and the car kept going deeper."
A Volusia County lifeguard reported seeing the van driving recklessly on the beach. The vehicle drove southbound in the surf, parallel to the shore, before turning east and driving into ocean.
Another witness said the mom dove out the car window into the water while rescuers were trying to save her children.
"She was pretty deep, and the water was moving the van, and the kids were screaming," Tim Tesseneer told CBS. "He got the two kids out while she dove out the window, the driver's window ... just belly-flopped into the water."
Tesseneer added the children informed them there was a baby in the vehicle.
"The kids are screaming, 'There's a baby! There's a baby!' I get back to the van, and by this time a couple of lifeguards have made it down there to us, and come to find out there's a baby still strapped in the seat, but we got her."
An unidentified woman who witnessed the event told WFTV: "The waves were just pounding into the water and down until it submerged. ... It started to go down pretty quick. I mean, she went straight into the water. ... Watching them carry the kids out of the van was very emotional."
At one point, heavy waves nearly pushed the mother underneath the van.
The struggle against nature was captured on video by Simon Besner, a tourist from Canada.
"It was a bit terrifying," he told WFTV. "The lifeguard went in the car to rescue the little girl, and then he was stuck himself in the car. So the other lifeguard took him back out of the car."
A voice on Besner's raw footage can be heard saying, "What the f--- were they thinking about, man?"
Volusia County Sheriff Ben Johnson said Daytona Beach police spoke with Wilkerson a couple of hours earlier at the request of concerned family members.
Wilkerson’s sister, Jessica Harrell, called law enforcement to request a well-being check on her sister and to report that she was in Florida to escape an abusive husband.
"She's getting a little bit better, but she's not all here, and she's trying to drive, and I'm trying to stop her," Harrell told the dispatcher.
"She's having psychosis or something," Harrell added. "She’s talking about Jesus and that there's demons in my house and that I'm trying to control her, but I'm trying to keep them safe."
Harrell then told the dispatcher Wilkerson was driving away with the three kids in the car and that she didn't know where she was headed.
Police soon spotted the vehicle and pulled her over. Wilkerson told police she feared her husband would harm her and that she was going to her "safe place."
"When we spoke with her, she was lucid," Daytona Beach Police Chief Mike Chitwood said. "The children were in the back seat, they were buckled in and were not in distress."
Chitwood said she didn't fit the criteria for going into custody under the Baker Act, a means of involuntarily detaining individuals at a facility for mental health evaluation.
"Two hours later she drove into the ocean," Chitwood said.
Beach Safety Capt. Tammy Marris said the family was taken to Halifax Health Medical Center as a precaution, and the van was towed from the ocean.
"The mother is undergoing a mental health evaluation and the three children have been turned over to the care of the Florida Department of Children & Families," Volusia County Sheriff’s spokesman Brandon Haught said.