COLUMBIA, S.C. Two female mental health patients detained for medical transport drowned Tuesday night when a sheriff’s department van was swept away in rising South Carolina floodwaters, as it crossed a bridge and was swept through a guard rail, according to authorities.
Horry County Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Brooke Holden said that a sheriff’s office van was carrying two “detainees” and two deputies to Darlington when it was overtaken by floodwaters. Officials said that the van was near the Little Pee Dee River, one of the bodies of water that state officials are watching following the heavy rains of Florence.
Marion County Coroner Jerry Richardson confirmed to The Associated Press early Wednesday the victim were Windy Wenton, 45, and Nicolette Green, 43.
According to Chief Deputy Tom Fox with the Horry County Sheriff Office, two Horry County Sheriff deputies were transporting two mental health patients to McLeod Behavorial Health in Darlington. One patient was from Waccamaw Mental Health and the other was from the Loris Hospital.
“They’re still under the water,” he said. “It’s come up 2 feet since just last night.”
Richardson said the van came across rising water and was carried off the road.
“They were trying to negotiate through fast-running water, and it just didn’t work out,” he told AP.
Holden said that deputies tried to get the victims out but couldn’t. Rescue teams plucked the deputies from the top of the van.
Two people transported in an Horry County Sheriff's Office van are presumed drowned tonight. The van was going to a behavioral health center in Darlington. It happened while driving on a road flooded near the Little Pee Dee River in Nichols after #HurricaneFlorence. pic.twitter.com/D17GRCc5gE
— Chris Spiker (@ChrisSpikerTV) September 19, 2018
Efforts to recover the inmates were ongoing Tuesday night, the Sheriff’s Office stated. Their bodies could not be removed from the vehicle because of rising waters and other dangerous conditions.
All lanes of Route 76 in the section the van was traveling on were closed due to flooding on Tuesday night, according to the S.C. Department of Transportation.
Horry County Deputy Tom Fox told WPDE-TV the victims were mental health patients being transported from one facility to another. Holden wouldn’t give further details on the victims’ status, citing an ongoing state police investigation. State police haven’t released any information about their probe.
It comes after some prisons bosses in South Carolina refused to evacuate inmates over safety concerns.
In a release, Horry County Sheriff Phillip Thompson said his office would cooperate with the probe.
“Tonight’s incident is a tragedy,” he said. “Just like you, we have questions we want answered.”
Bryan Stirling, director of the department, chose not to move inmates despite prison evacuations in Virginia and North Carolina.
He said that evacuating thousands of convicts with buses on congested routes would have created a public safety concern.
A spokesman for the department added: ‘In the past, it’s been safer to leave them there.’
Among the prisons that are not being evacuated are Ridgeland, MacDougall, and Lieber Correctional Institutions.
As of late Tuesday night, 37 deaths have been attributed to Florence, including eight in South Carolina.