The young mother who drove her van into the Hudson River with her four children inside scrambled to put the vehicle in reverse and said it was all a mistake, according to the passerby who found the only child to survive the tragedy.
LaShanda Armstrong, 25, drowned in the Hudson along with three of her kids: Landen Pierre, 5, Lance Pierre, 2, and Laianna Pierre, 11 months.
Armstrong's 10-year-old son, La'Shaun Armstrong, was also in the minivan when it plunged into the river in Newburgh, N.Y., on Tuesday, but managed to roll down the window, escape and swim to shore before it sank, police said.
Passerby Meave Ryan encountered the boy after he came ashore, shivering and soaking wet. She told NBC New York the boy told her that his mom tried to put the van in reverse and repeated: "I made a mistake, I made a mistake."
Ryan also said the boy told her that "she went into the back seat and held them all together and said, 'If I'm gonna die, you're all going to die with me.'"
The boy told Ryan that his mom was upset because his stepfather was cheating on her.
Police identified Jean Pierre as the father of the three children who died; the boy has a different father. Police said Pierre has been questioned but declined to elaborate.
LaShanda's aunt, Angela Gilliam, told NBC New York that the family is devastated.
"We are hurting," she said.
"She could've turned to me, she could've turned to any one of us for help," Gilliam said.
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."
Gilliam says she also spoke to her niece on 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 about a domestic dispute. Police said there was no history of domestic violence at the address.
By the time police got there on Tuesday, Armstrong had already taken the fatal plunge with her children.
Fire Chief Michael Vatter said the 10-year-old boy who managed to escape the van likely had no more than two minutes to get out.
When the van hit the water at about 8 p.m., it was just past high tide and the Hudson was flowing swiftly to the south, pulling the van some 25 yards out into the river, Vatter said.
"He got out of the car, got up onto the boat ramp, turned around and it was gone," Vatter said.
A passerby saw the boy come out of the river, picked him up and took him to a nearby firehouse.
Rescuers went immediately to the river but it was too late to save the four victims.
Several neighbors on Wednesday recalled LaShanda Armstrong 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."