‘We want to know why’: Family of woman who drowned in Horry Sheriff van seeks answers

Closure comes in waves for the family of one of the two patients who drowned in the back of a Horry County Sheriff’s Office transport van this week in floodwaters following the aftermath of Hurricane Florence.

Some came after 24-hour rescuers removed their family member from the van and flood waters. A bit more came when the family met with Horry County Sheriff Phillip Thompson.

Real closure, though, won’t happen until they look into the eyes of deputies who were on the van’s roof as Nicolette Green and Wendy Newton died inside.

Nicolette Green Submitted by the Green family

“We have the right to ask them to tell us what happened,” Donnela Green-Johnson, Nicolette Green’s sister, told The Sun News this week.

Nicolette — or Nikki to her family — suffered from schizophrenia and depression. Her new medication was helping, her family said, but she was under a court order for an involuntary commitment, which is why she was in the van Tuesday.

Horry County Sheriff’s deputies were transporting Green and Newton, of Shallotte, N.C., from Conway to medical facilities in Darlington and Lancaster. The transport van was swept into flood waters in Marion County near U.S. Highway 76 and Pee Dee Island Road.

The deputies escaped, but Green and Newton could not be freed.

“They heard my sister screaming for help,” Green-Johnson said.

Rescuers arrive at the van

Horry County Fire Rescue squads first learned of the van’s dire conditions around 5:30 p.m. Marion County rescuers responded to the report minutes later, based on police radio dispatch calls.

Crews from both counties worked to get to the van outside of Nichols, one of many communities facing flooding in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence.

Marion and Horry crews arrived at the scene, on opposite sides of the road, creating some confusion as they worked towards the van, according to on-ground communications. Horry responders said the van’s back door was open, but they needed bolt cutters to “cut the chains” in the back.

Sheriff Thompson said at a news conference Wednesday he didn’t believe the two women were restrained in the back of the van. Deputies could not open the doors because of the way the van rested against the guardrail or because of rushing waters, Thompson said.

Sheriff’s officials declined to answer questions in time for this story.

Thompson said Wednesday the deputies drove around a barricade blocking the flooded road. The sheriff’s office, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division and the South Carolina Highway Patrol also are investigating the incident. The deputies, Stephen Flood and Joshua Bishop, were put on administrative leave.

According to the on-ground communications, the deputies waited on top of the van as Marion Country crews first arrived at the transport. At one point, Horry County rescuers can be heard saying if people stand they should be able to breathe, but it’s unclear if that comment refers to the deputies or the women inside.

The entire rescue lasts more than an hour. After about 45 minutes, Marion crews relay to Horry responders that the women inside the van stopped communicating.

After about an hour, on-ground communication over the radio slows to infrequent discussions.

Because of the conditions, crews stopped rescue and recovery efforts, Thompson said earlier this week. During the ground communications, Horry County responders can be heard talking about the flood’s currents and their retreat.

It wasn’t until the next day that crews removed the van and the women from the flood waters. The victims were scheduled for autopsies in Charleston. The deputies were at a Loris hospital for treatment.

A big heart

Green lived in the Myrtle Beach area and was kind and caring, Donnela Green-Johnson said. She worked in a school and with the elderly and never shied away from the dirty jobs in either role. She was small in stature at 5-foot-2, but “strong as an ox.”

“She loved kittens and puppies and kids and older people,” Green-Johnson said.

Green was a mom to four kids — Rose, 19; Erica, 17; Gad, 6; and Otto, 5, who died in 2015.

“She tried to be a good mom,” Green-Johnson said. “She was never a danger [to her kids].”

Nicolette Green Submitted by the Green family

Green was a devout Christian, though she wandered among congregations, Green-Johnson said. She and her dad also frequented area breakfast places.

“She had a very big heart, quick to smile. She would do anything for anyone,” her sister said. “If she had $5, she would spend all $5 on whoever she took care of.”

Since puberty Green dealt with mental health issues, Green-Johnson said. The family believed she was doing better on a new medication before she needed further treatment.

A private person, Green would have hated the media attention around her death, Green-Johnson said.

The family is traveling to Pennsylvania to bury her in their hometown Wednesday. They met with Thompson, who Green-Johnson said expressed his condolences and the family believes he is sorry for the incident. There were some questions he couldn’t answer because of the investigations or legal issues, she said.

Some of those questions get to the heart of what happened and why. As Green-Johnson stated, they deserve the courtesy of hearing from the two deputies who were with Nikki in her last moments.

“There’s a lot of anger … impatience,” Green-Johnson said. “We want to know why.”

Later she added, “We don’t have closure yet.”

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