Bodies recovered of mental health patients nearly 24 hours after drowning
MARION COUNTY, SC (WMBF) - A Horry County Sheriff's Office van was swept away in flood waters Tuesday night near Nichols resulting in two female mental health patients drowning in the Little Pee Dee River, according to officials.
According to Marion County Coroner Jerry Richardson, the victims have been identified as Windy Newton, 45 of Shallotte, NC, and Nicolette Green, 43, of Myrtle Beach. Richardson says the women were being transported from a hospital in Horry County to medical facilities in Florence and Darlington.
The bodies of the two women were recovered on Wednesday, nearly 24 hours after the event began, from the submerged van in the Little Pee Dee River.
Horry County Sheriff Phillip Thompson identified the two deputies involved in the incident as Stephen Flood and Joshua Bishop. According to a news release, the deputies have been placed on administrative leave.
In a Wednesday night press conference, Thompson was asked whether or not the deputies had driven around barriers on the flooded road. Thompson said:
We have three different people doing investigations. Obviously it appears that they did. My question is, I want to know why. What were the circumstances and what happened at the particular time.
He added the women, who he says were not detainees but mental health patients, were not strapped/shackled in the van.
"We are sorry," Thompson said. " We take a lot of pride in what we do. We work hard to protect and to serve our citizens. We are just very sorry that this event has taken place."
The incident is being investigated by the State Law Enforcement Division and South Carolina highway patrol. HCSO is conducting an internal investigation. Thom Berry with the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division said during part of the recovery effort, they tried putting boats in the water so they could get the victims out of the van.
"This will be investigated thoroughly, at all different aspects of the investigation," Thompson said. "I just want to say to the families that they are definitely in our thoughts and our prayers. We will be there for whatever questions they may have, the public and anyone else."
When it comes to the deputies who assist in transport, Thompson said that they have gone through extensive intense training.
"We have very intense training for folks that go into transport," Thompson said. "The training is more than the correction officers training. We go into very in-depth training with driving, with different aspects of what they have to do. Last year we transported over 1,200 mental patients, this past year and drove about 40,000 miles transporting and never had an incident like this."
"I'm believing we're going to get answers," said Stacy Martin. She was driving through the area and said she wanted to check on everything and make sure everyone was OK. She said she heard about what happened and offers the families of the victims prayers.
"I know that it is a very sad situation so ive just been praying for the victims and the families of the victims," said Martin.
WMBF News reporter Patrick Lloyd was first on scene and saw a heavy emergency response presence that consisted of the Horry County Sheriff's Office, Marion Sheriff's Office, the National Guard, and many other agencies.
A press release from the Horry County Sheriffs Office said:
A Horry County Sheriff's Office transportation vehicle was involved in a high-water incident tonight. The vehicle, staffed by two Horry County Sheriff's Office deputies, was transporting two detainees from Conway to Darlington. The vehicle was traveling west on Highway 76 around ½ mile from the Little Pee Dee River when the vehicle was overtaken by flood waters.
The two deputies attempted to extricate the persons being transported. Despite persistent and ongoing efforts, floodwater rose rapidly and the deputies were unable to open the doors to reach the individuals inside the van. High water rescue teams arrived and were able to rescue the two deputies from the top of the van. At this time, the recovery effort is ongoing, and the transportation vehicle cannot be removed due to rising waters and dangerous conditions.
The two individuals being transported were confirmed dead by the Marion County Coroner. This incident is being investigated by the State Law Enforcement Division (SLED).
Horry County Sheriff Phillip Thompson stated, "Tonight's incident is a tragedy. Just like you, we have questions we want answered. We are fully cooperating with the State Law Enforcement Division to support their investigation of this event."
According to information from the South Carolina Department of Transportation, the portion of Highway 76 in the Nichols area was closed Tuesday night and had been closed for some time.
The SCDOT added the driver of the vehicle had to go around a barrier to get stuck where they were.
The Little Pee Dee River reached major flood stage after Hurricane Florence battered the Carolinas over the weekend and is expected to crest at 16 feet on September 21, seven feet higher than flood stage.
Thompson released a statement Wednesday that read:
Last night, we had a tragedy. Two individuals being transported by our HCSO van were involved in a high-water incident and died. Our deputies were driving the vehicle when it was swept away by floodwaters.
According to the Marion County Coroner, the deceased individuals are Windy Newton, 45, of Shallotte, NC and Nicolette Green, 43, of Myrtle Beach.
The incident took place in Marion County.
We are currently working with the SCDNR to recover the vehicle. Due to dangerous conditions and rising waters, additional search and rescue teams are arriving to assist in the recovery of the vehicle.
We are working hand-in-hand with the State Law Enforcement Division to cooperate in this investigation. Two additional investigations including a traffic investigation and an internal investigation are taking place.
As I mentioned, we have as many questions, this is the very reason SLED and internal agencies are established.
The officers involved in the incident are placed on administrative leave.
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