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Mother, 3 children drown in minivan

4th child survives as woman drives into Hudson River

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By James Barron
New York Times / April 14, 2011

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The Fire Department headquarters in Newburgh, N.Y., was all but empty after dinnertime Tuesday night — the fire trucks were out on a call, the fire chief said. Then a woman and a 10-year-old boy, both dripping wet, walked in, and the dispatcher on duty noticed that the boy was so cold he was shaking and so upset he had trouble talking.

“He just basically got out that the car went in the water with his mom and some kids,’’ said Michael Vatter, the fire chief.

It took a moment for the meaning of the boy’s halting words to register: His mother, Lashanda Armstrong, 25, had driven her minivan off a boat ramp into the Hudson River. He had been inside. He had crawled over her and scrambled out after pushing a button and lowering the driver’s side window.

He swam about 25 feet through 45-degree water. When he reached the shore, a passerby picked him up and drove three blocks to the firehouse, where they walked in at 7:50 p.m.

His mother’s minivan sat submerged in 8 feet of water. She was still inside, as were her three other children, identified by the police as Landen Pierre, 5; Lance Pierre, 2; and Lainaina Pierre, 11 months old.

At first, Vatter said, the firefighters and police officers believed they were engaged in a rescue.

But it took divers an hour, fighting the same fast current that had carried the minivan away from the riverbank, to find it in the darkness. By then, the four people inside were dead, and officials were trying to make sense of why the distraught woman at the wheel could have decided to drive to the river and step on the accelerator.

What is known is that soon after the minivan plunged into the water, the 10-year-old-boy, La’Shaun Armstrong, was apparently able to save himself.

Lashanda Armstrong’s neighbors said she had loaded the children into the van after a vicious argument with the father of the three youngest children, identified by the police as Jean Pierre, 26. He had been her high school prom date and had worked in a fast-food restaurant, neighbors said.

Pierre, by some accounts, had helped Armstrong with the responsibilities of caring for four young children on limited means. But outward appearances belied tension between the two: Pierre did not live with Armstrong.

“From the outside, it looked perfect,’’ said Sharon Ramirez, 22, a neighbor and friend of Armstrong’s. “But there were a lot of things going on. They had a rocky relationship.’’

Ramirez was certain of that because, she said, she had carried on a three-month affair with Pierre last year, when Armstrong was pregnant with Lainaina.

The first sign of the tragedy involved the argument at Armstrong’s apartment on a hardscrabble block in the center of Newburgh, about 60 miles from Manhattan.

The police chief, Michael Ferrara, said that a relative of Armstrong’s had called 911 around 7:30 p.m., saying that Armstrong was involved in a domestic dispute.

Ferrara said the caller described hearing “tussling in the background’’ during a call from Armstrong.

She and Armstrong’s father were so concerned that they drove to the apartment, arriving there to find the police officers who had been sent in response to her call, but no one else.

“It was too late,’’ she said.

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