Two female mental health detainees died after they were submerged in Florence floodwaters while traveling in the back of a sheriff’s van in South Carolina.
According to a statement from Horry County Sheriff’s Office, two deputies were transporting the two women to a mental health facility in an adjacent county Tuesday night when the driver of the van encountered floodwaters from the nearby Little Pee Dee River.
“The two deputies attempted to extricate the persons being transported,” Horry County officials said in a statement. “Despite persistent and ongoing efforts, floodwater rose rapidly and the deputies were unable to open the doors to reach the individuals in the van.”
On Wednesday, Marion County Coroner Jerry Richardson identified the two women as Wendy Wenton, 45, of Shallotte, North Carolina, and Nicolette Green, 42, of Myrtle Beach, according to the Associated Press. Their bodies will be sent to Charleston this weekend for autopsies.
Both deputies survived by climbing on top of the van and were successfully rescued Tuesday night by high water rescue teams, officials said. Authorities were still trying to recover the bodies of the two women early Wednesday morning.
“They’re still under the water,” Richardson told AP. “It’s come up 2 feet since just last night.”
The two detainees were reportedly being transported from the Waccamaw Center for Mental Health to McLeod Health, located in Darlington, Marion County. Local news reports suggest the women may have been chained in the back of the van when they drowned.
It's not clear why the women were being transferred, or why the transfer was scheduled on Tuesday, when authorities were still warning people of ongoing flooding in the area.
WMBF reports that, according to South Carolina Department of Transportation, the roadway where the women drowned "was closed Tuesday night and had been closed for some time," and that the driver of the vehicle would have had to "go around a barrier to get stuck where they were."
South Carolina Gov. Henry lifted the mandatory evacuation order for Horry County on Sunday, but officials warned that as the heavy rainfall makes its way downstream, rivers and streams are likely to overflow their banks, resulting in potentially disastrous floods.
The Horry County Sheriff’s Office did not return multiple requests for comment from VICE News, but issued a general statement to media outlets.
“Tonight’s incident is a tragedy,” said Horry County Sheriff Phillip Thompson. “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.”
As rivers spill out of their banks and levees break, the death toll from Florence is continuing to rise along with the water. Officials said Tuesday that at least 32 people have died so far from Florence.
Cover image: Barriers block a road leading to a bridge flooded by the Little Pee Dee River after Hurricane Florence hit near Marion, South Carolina, U.S., on Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2018. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says Congress is prepared to provide new resources to help U.S. states recover from Hurricane Florence. Photographer: Charles Mostoller/Bloomberg via Getty Images