“We want answers. Why did the deputies drive through flooded waters? What happened to ‘Turn Around. Don’t Drown?’”
That’s a heartbroken woman’s question for the Horry County Sheriff’s Office after learning her sister, 43-year-old Nicolette Green, was one of two female mental-health patients who drowned when a sheriff’s van transporting them in South Carolina was swept away by rising floodwaters left in Hurricane Florence’s wake.
“Gross negligence has robbed two families of their loved ones. We want those who are responsible to be held accountable. These women were not inmates or criminals. They were women who voluntarily sought help,” the family statement, obtained by the The Daily Beast through Nicolette’s sister, Jewels Green, said on Wednesday. “They trusted the hospitals and the Sheriff Deputies with their lives and that trust was abused. We want answers.”
On Wednesday evening, the Horry County Sheriff’s Office announced that the bodies of Nicolette Green and Windy Newton, 45, had been recovered from the van and would be taken to Charleston, South Carolina, for an autopsy.
The van, according to authorities, was carrying the two patients along with two deputies to the city of Darlington around 5:30 p.m. when the rising waters flooded the vehicle.
“This is a tragedy,” Green’s mother said to The Daily Beast, declining to speak more about her daughter. “I can’t believe this has happened.”
The river, which has been assigned “major flood” status, is one of the bodies of water state officials are closely monitoring following Florence, Horry County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Brooke Holden told The Daily Beast.
Original reports characterized the two women as “detainees,” but Holden clarified they were patients at nearby mental hospitals.
At the time of the incident, officials said, Green and Newton were being transported from their coastal hospitals to a behavioral center farther inland for safety reasons.
Marion County Coroner Jerry Richardson told The Daily Beast that the van, while trying to cross rapidly rising waters, was carried off the road.
“The water is deep, fast, and contaminated,” he said. “They were trying to negotiate with it and it just didn’t work out.”
In a Facebook post, Jewels Green said her sister was a mother of four and had suffered from “depression for the last 20+ years of her life.” Her son Otto passed away recently from bone cancer, Green added.
“She was seeking help. She trusted people and they killed her,” Jewels Green wrote in a tribute post. “Our only comfort is that we know she is in Heaven with her son and that she is now at peace.”
Holden said in a statement Wednesday evening that the officers “were transporting Green and Newton following involuntary commitments by a physician.”
According to South Carolina state law, Holden said, “a State or local law enforcement officer is authorized and required to take into custody and transport [the person] to the hospital designated by the certification.”
The deputies were able to escape from the van but were unsuccessful in trying to extricate the women, officials said. Once rescue teams retrieved the two deputies from atop the sunken van, and they were transported to a nearby hospital and have since been placed on administrative leave. That hospital, Richardson said, is now too difficult for authorities to reach because “the flooding is too high.”
The Horry County Sheriff’s Office announced on Wednesday that it will perform an internal investigation and will cooperate with state officials to learn exactly what happened. South Carolina Law Enforcement Division spokesman Thom Berry confirmed to The Daily Beast that state agents were on the scene to aid in the recovery effort.
“Last night, we had a tragedy,” Horry County Sheriff Phillip Thompson said in a statement on Wednesday. “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.”
The women’s deaths bring Hurricane Florence’s tally to at least 37 killed since the powerful storm made landfall—with most of the devastation in North Carolina.
“This is a tough hurricane,” President Donald Trump said this week of Hurricane Florence, which wreaked havoc in the Carolinas and Virginia. “One of the wettest we've ever seen from the standpoint of water... A big one like that area certainly has never seen before.”
While his phrasing may have sounded odd, his description was spot-on: Hurricane Florence is now the wettest tropical cyclone ever in the Carolinas and the ninth-wettest hurricane in U.S. history, dropping more than 30 inches throughout the weekend and leaving a flooding crisis in its wake.
In South Carolina, which is preparing for flooding worse than 2016’s Hurricane Matthew, the worst is yet to come, Taylor Newell, a spokesperson for the city of Conway, told CNN on Wednesday.
“We are hearing that the water may not crest until Tuesday or Wednesday. It won’t reach the highest model until next week,” Newell said, adding that while the water is receding from flash floods earlier this week post-Florence, “we expect more flooding in the next few days.”
During Trump’s visit to assess the federal response in North Carolina on Wednesday, Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Brock Long acknowledged that although the rain has stopped, the devastation will continue.
“This event is not over,” Long said. “The rivers are still cresting. We still have a lot of work to do.”