NEWBURGH, N.Y. (AP) — A woman upset with the father of her children packed her four youngsters into her minivan and drove into the frigid Hudson River, killing everyone except her 10-year-old son, who managed to roll down a window of the sinking vehicle and swim to shore.
The dead youngsters ranged in age from 11 months to 5 years.
A relative had called police Tuesday night to report a dispute at the home of Lashanda Armstrong, 25. Shortly afterward, she drove off a boat ramp several blocks away from her apartment in this struggling city 60 miles north of New York City.
Officials believe Lashaun Armstrong, 10, hit the button on a power window to escape from the driver's side as the minivan began to sink in the 45-degree water. Fire Chief Michael Vatter said the vehicle went under within two minutes.
"He got out of the car, got up onto the boat ramp, turned around and it was gone," Vatter said.
A passer-by found a soaked and cold Lashaun Armstrong along the shore and took him to a firehouse for help. The boy was so distraught that he had difficulty talking but ultimately told firefighters what happened, the fire chief said. Rescuers went immediately to the river.
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. Everyone inside was dead.
Killed along with Lashanda Armstrong were Landon Pierre, 5, Lance Pierre, 2, and 11-month-old Laianna Pierre, police said. Lashaun is staying with his mother's aunt Angela Gilliam and "doing fine," she said.
Armstrong appeared stressed-out when she picked up the children Tuesday 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. "She's a single parent. She takes great care of her kids, goes to school and works. She really needed a helping hand."
The man police identified as the father of the three dead children, Jean Pierre, was questioned. Police would 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."
Gilliam called Newburgh police on Tuesday night after getting a call from her brother. By the time police reached the apartment, Armstrong and her children were gone.
"She was a good mother. She was going through some stuff," Gilliam said. "Nobody knows what my niece went through." She would not elaborate.
Police said there was no history of domestic violence at the address.
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."
Mourners immediately created a memorial of stuffed animals and flowers at the boat ramp.
The deaths were reminiscent of the case of Susan Smith, the South Carolina woman who drowned her two young sons in 1994 by sending her car into a pond. She initially claimed she had been carjacked. She is serving a life sentence.