Photos show submerged van, rescue efforts during Horry County Sheriff van drownings

The bodies of two women are still inside an Horry County Sheriff’s transport van as four rescuers stand on the roof. Floodwater has submerged the vehicle, and a 3-foot-wide cut shows a failed rescue attempt.

It would be more than 24 hours before rescue workers manage to remove the women’s bodies.

A South Carolina Department of Natural Resources officer took pictures of the rescue efforts amongst the high waters in the secluded, wooded area of Marion County. The images are the first publicly released photos from the scene.

“Agonizing,” Linda Green said of the photo. “To know my daughter is dead in there … breaks my heart.”

On Sept. 18, Nikki Green and Wendy Newton were being transported from Horry County to other mental health care facilities in South Carolina. Both were transported under emergency commitment orders even though floodwaters from Hurricane Florence had closed hundreds of roads.

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Rescue teams stand on top of a Horry County Sheriff’s Office transport van after it was swept into floodwaters on Sept. 18. Two mental health patients drown in the back of the transport. Provided by the Department of Natural Resources.

Horry County Sheriff’s Office deputies Stephen Flood and Joshua Bishop were tasked with their transport. They disregarded a route supervisors told them they believed was safe and took a route through Nichols in Marion County, despite being told it was impassable, authorities said.

Around 5 p.m., the duo drove around a barricade on S.C. 76 and into the high waters, officials said. The van stalled and was swept off the road and into a guardrail, investigators said. It sank into a large hole formed by the washout.

Bishop, who was in the passenger seat, freed himself, but Flood, the driver, could not initially escape. Bishop tried to free Green and Newton, but failed. He helped Flood from the vehicle, and crews rescued the two from the van’s roof, according to authorities.

After the van stalled, Green and Newton were alive in a cage-like area of the van. They were not restrained, but both drowned when the floodwaters entered the van, investigators said.

Horry, Marion and other rescue crews spent hours in rescue efforts after the van was washed aside, according to police radio traffic.

The deputies were transported to local hospitals for treatment as rescuers tried to recover the women.

The DNR photo, which was released after a Freedom of Information Act request by The Sun News, was taken around 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 18. Crews tried to rescue the patients by cutting into the roof, but were unsuccessful, according to Division Spokeswoman Kaley Lawrimore.

Linda Green said the photo shows the “stupidity and idiocy” of the deputies who drove into the floods. They ignored the state’s warnings about “turn around, don’t drown.”

“Why couldn’t they have followed their own policies and orders?” Linda Green asked.

Bishop’s attorney Bert von Herrmann called the incident a “horrible, tragic accident.” Von Herrmann added his client tried to save the woman and saved his partner.

“There would have been three dead if not for my client,” Von Herrmann said.

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The Horry County Sheriff’s Office transport van is removed from the scene. Two mental health patients drown in the vehicle after it was swept in floodwaters. The deputies driving the van were fired. Provided by the Department of Natural Resources

Flood’s attorney declined to comment on the photo. But, previously said they were looking forward to the facts being presented as the case is prosecuted.

The DNR also provided reports from dive team members on Sept. 19 and Sept. 24. The day after the drowning, a diver dove 10 feet deep for about an hour to recover the women.

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The inside of a Horry County Sheriff transport van shows the area where two women drown after the vehicle was swept in flood waters in Marion County on Sept. 18. The hat on the ground belonged to Nikki Green. Provided by G. Scott Bellamy

“We attempted to cut the roof off the van with a torch supplied by SLED,” he wrote in the report. “After a failed attempt, I pulled the side door open against the current. I was able to gain entry into the side door and cage door within the van.” The report said he found the two women, unrestrained, and removed their remains without further difficulty.

A week after the incident, rescue crews removed the van from the road, though a door fell off and DNR teams were called to help recover it, according to agency reports.

A month after the incident, the Horry County Sheriff’s Office announced it fired Flood and Bishop. Last week, Marion County Solicitor Ed Clements formally charged the two ex-deputies. Flood faces two counts of involuntary manslaughter and two counts of reckless homicide. Bishop faces two counts of involuntary manslaughter.

Both are free on bond.

A new bill

Soon after the drowning, members of the Green family decried mental health patients being transported in cage-like vans and the decision to move them during a state of emergency.

This week four South Carolina senators introduced a bill to address those issues. The introduction comes after two congressional hearings in Columbia about the drownings.

The new law would permit agencies to wait until conditions are safe to transport those taken into custody during a natural disaster or if life-threatening conditions exist. Agencies would have 72 hours after conditions are declared safe to complete the transport. Under the current law, transports must be complete with in 72 hours of their order.

The bill also calls for transport officers to be part of a “therapeutic transport unit” and complete crisis-intervention training. An unmarked sedan should be used for transport, when possible, the bill states.

A memorial sits on the side of U.S. Highway 76 in Marion County in honor of Nicolette Green and Wendy Newton of Shallotte, N.C. Horry County Sheriff’s deputies were transporting Green and Newton from Conway to medical facilities in Darlington and Lancaster when the transport van was swept into floodwaters along Highway 76. Josh Bell

A physician also would be required to notify a friend or relative of a patient that needs to be transported. That loved one could transport the patient for care, but would assume responsibility and liability.

Linda Green said there is some comfort seeing a bill introduced. Though she also said she wants a provision to ensure patients aren’t transported in cage-like vehicles.

“I’m glad the state senators are helping us with this,” she said.

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Alex Lang is the True Crime reporter for The Sun News covering the legal system and how crime impacts local residents. He says letting residents know if they are safe is a vital role of a newspaper. Alex has covered crime in Detroit, Iowa, New York City, West Virginia and now Horry County.
Carli Brosseau is a reporter at The News & Observer who often analyzes databases as part of her work. She attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.