(Updates with details from sheriff's report, quotes, adds byline)
By Barbara Liston and Kevin Gray
ORLANDO/MIAMI, March 7 (Reuters) - A pregnant woman who drove a minivan with her children inside into the surf off a Florida beach was charged with three counts of attempted murder, law enforcement officials said on Friday.
A tourist's video showed lifeguards and bystanders rushing to help rescue the woman, Ebony Wilkerson, and her children, ages 3, 9 and 10, as their van bobbed in the waves on Daytona Beach on Tuesday.
Volusia County Sheriff Ben Johnson said Wilkerson told authorities she was not trying to hurt the children. According to a sheriff office's report, the children told investigators "Mom tried to kill us."
The oldest child, a girl, fought with her mother over control of the steering wheel to try to turn the minivan away from the water, the report said.
Wilkerson, 32, was arrested on Friday after a mental health evaluation and charged with three counts of child abuse. The children have been placed in state custody, Johnson said.
"You're supposed to protect your children at all costs," Johnson told reporters. "You're not supposed to try to kill your children."
After driving the car into the ocean, Wilkerson tried to block beach safety officers from getting into the minivan to rescue the children, according to the sheriff's report.
The 10-year-old girl told investigators that her mother took them to the beach "so we could die," the report said.
Wilkerson locked the doors of her 2012 Honda Odyssey, closed the windows and told the children to close their eyes and go to sleep, the children told investigators.
Wilkerson ignored her children's pleas and told them they were going to a "safer place."
A witness saw the girl on her mother's lap fighting for control of the steering wheel, according to investigators.
One child pushed the power button to lower the windows and the youngsters started screaming for help. Bystanders ran over, but Wilkerson told them everyone was okay, the report said.
Wilkerson then got out of the minivan and left the children inside. Beach safety officers who started pulling the children out had to fight off Wilkerson, who was grabbing at one officer to try to keep him away from the vehicle, investigators said.
Wilkerson, her father and the two older children told authorities that Wilkerson brought her children to Florida this week to get away from an abusive marriage.
The day before the incident, Wilkerson, at her sister's request, was evaluated by police, who determined that she did not qualify for involuntary mental health commitment. The sister took her to the hospital, but Wilkerson left against the advice of medical personnel, according to the arrest affidavit.
The children told investigators she began acting "crazy" when they arrived in Florida. (Editing by Phil Berlowitz and Gunna Dickson)
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