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Officials question why SC deputies drove into flood, killing 2 mental health patients

Rising flood waters in Marion County, S.C. (Meg Kinnard, AP)

Two women who were being transported to a mental health facility drowned when a sheriff's department van was swept away in rising South Carolina floodwaters, according to authorities.

Two Horry County deputies were driving a van carrying the two women in the back on Tuesday night when it was overtaken by floodwaters in Marion County, according to the Horry County Sheriff's Department.

Officials said the van was near the Little Pee Dee River, one of the bodies of water state officials are watching closely following the heavy rains of Florence.

"(Deputies) got out and tried to open the van to get the ladies out," Horry County Sheriff Phillip Thompson told reporters on Wednesday. "They were unable to do so. I'm not sure if it was the way the van was positioned, against a guardrail, or if it was pressure from the water, but unfortunately they were not able to get the van doors open and get the ladies out."

Thompson said it took rescue crews about 45 minutes to find the van and get to it via boat. By the time they got there, the van was underwater, and the deputies were on the roof.

It had gotten dark, and responders decided it wasn't safe to try to retrieve the women's bodies from the van Tuesday night. That effort resumed Wednesday morning, but Thompson said a specialized crew was being flown in from Charleston to assist.

Thompson identified the women as Windy Newton, 45, and Nicolette Green, 43.

"They're still under the water," Richardson told The Associated Press early Wednesday. "It's come up 2 feet since just last night."

Marion County Coroner Jerry 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," Richardson told the AP.

The incident has spawned investigations by the State Law Enforcement Division and Highway Patrol. Thompson said he has also begun an internal investigation and put the deputies involved — Joshua Bishop and Stephen Flood — on administrative leave.

"Tonight's incident is a tragedy," SLED spokesman Thom Berry said Tuesday. "Just like you, we have questions we want answered."

The sheriff said that the women were being transported as part of a court order, telling reporters that his agency acts as a courier in such situations, to follow a judge's wishes.

"Once those orders are issued, we don't place those people in a detention center," Thompson said. "When we get the order, we transport them."

Thompson said he did not think the women were in restraints in the back of the van, noting that restraints are used for combative patients "and I understand they were not."

The department originally described the women as "detainees."

Neither woman has an arrest record in South Carolina, according to documents obtained from state police. Their names also yielded no records in the Horry County jail and court index systems.

Newton had posted on her Facebook page, last updated in 2014, that she had been previously hospitalized for mental illness. She also posted multiple times about her struggles.

Thompson also said he didn't know if the deputies had driven around any barricades blocking the roads.

Justin Bamberg, a state lawmaker and lawyer who has represented the families of several people injured or killed by law enforcement officers, said Wednesday he's perplexed by the decision to transport anyone in such uncertain weather conditions.

"If that road is in an area where it is a flood risk, and waters were rising, why were they driving on that road anyway?" he said. "People need to know exactly how it happened. It makes it seem like someone took a very unnecessary risk in creating the problem in the first place."

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