“We’re looking to see if criminal charges are going to be appropriate, or if this is a medical issue,” Volusia County Sheriff Ben Johnson said at a press conference Wednesday. “At this time we don’t know, it’s early in the investigation.”
A bystander’s video captured the dramatic rescue of the mother and her three children, ages 10, 9 and 3.
A beach safety officer reported seeing a Honda Odyssey van with a South Carolina tag driving recklessly on the beach around 5 p.m., the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office said in a press release.
“The vehicle drove south bound in the surf, parallel to the shore, before turning east and driving into approximately 3-4 feet of water,” authorities said. “As additional beach safety officers arrived on scene, the van was floating and was almost completely submerged in the water.”
The stunning video shows the van quickly filling up while one of the rescuers carried two of the children to land.
According to police, the mother was already out of the vehicle when rescuers arrived. Witnesses said she appeared to be disoriented and walked away from the vehicle while her youngest child was still in the car.
“When we entered the water to rescue her, she was out of the van already and she was acting inappropriate,” said Mark Swanson, Volusia County's Beach Patrol director. “She wasn’t answering questions appropriately.”
The video then captures the two men frantically pulling the 3-year-old child from the hatchback of the car.
“With the help of bystanders, beach safety officers were able to remove the occupants – two girls and a boy, including a toddler who was strapped into a booster seat – and take them on shore to safety,” police said in the press release.
“The waves were strong, the water was cold,” Swanson added. “If it had been minutes longer, the outcome would probably have been different.”
Tim Tesseneer, one of two men who rescued the family, said the children were screaming when he approached the vehicle.
"The two in the back seat was crying, with their arms out saying 'Our mommy's trying to kill us, please help,'" he told HLN affiliate WESH.
Johnson said the incident is under investigation, and authorities are working to determine if there was intent.
Police also revealed that two hours prior to Tuesday’s incident, Daytona police received a call from a concerned family member who stated the mother was in some sort of crisis.
Daytona police officers interviewed the mother, but said she did not display enough of any issues to justify taking her in to custody under Florida’s Baker Act, which allows authorities to involuntarily take people into custody if they appear to be a threat to themselves.
"If the officers had made any statement that she was suicidal, or that she was homicidal, that she was a danger in any way, Daytona officers would have taken her into custody under the Baker Act," Johnson said. "But she made no statement that would indicate that, so they had nothing that they could go on to take her into custody.
“She said she was headed for an abuse shelter, so at that time they could not do anything with her, but two hours later it escalated to this,” Johnson added.
Officers said the mother refused to tell them where she was going because she was afraid that her ex may find out.
Authorities are now working to obtain a search warrant to search the mother’s vehicle for additional clues.
The mother, who police confirm is pregnant, was admitted to a local hospital for a mental health examination.
The children, who doctors say are in good health, have been turned over to the care of the Florida Department of Children and Families.