Several questions remain unanswered after two South Carolina mental health patients died yesterday. The victims, both female, were being transported in a police van when floodwaters overtook their vehicle.
A Horry County Sheriff's Office van was taking Windy Wenton, 45, and Nicolette Green, 43, to McLeod Behavorial Health in Darlington, South Carolina, Chief Deputy Tom Fox told WLTX. Two deputies were in the van with them, though Wenton and Green were in the back.
Disaster struck when the van was overcome by flood waters in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, which has devastated the region in recent days. Both deputies escaped the van, then attempted to save Wenton and Green. But "despite persistent and ongoing efforts, floodwater rose rapidly and the deputies were unable to open the doors to reach the individuals inside the van," the sheriff's office said in a statement.
The deputies made it to the top of the van, where they were rescued by a high-water team. But nothing could be done to save the two women they were transporting. Both women were declared dead last night, Marion County Coroner Jerry Richardson told WPDE, though first responders were not immediately able to retrieve the van with their bodies in it. "They're still under the water," Richardson told the Associated Press this morning. "It's come up two feet since just last night."
In a statement, Horry County Sheriff Phillip Thompson called the deaths a "tragedy," while noting that the two deputies have been placed on administrative leave. "Just like you, we have questions we want answered," he said.
One of the biggest questions: Were Wenton and Green shackled in the back of the van?
Multiple outlets, including ABC News, the New York Post, and the New York Daily News, say the patients were either "shackled" or "chained." When reached for comment by Reason, a spokesperson for the South Carolina State Law Enforcement Division, which is investigating the incident, said he couldn't confirm that they were shackled. He explained the van was still underwater, though officials were working on a "plan" to recover it later today.
Determining whether Wenton and Green were in chains is important. If they were, then that could have kept them from escaping the van with their lives. It would also raise another question: Why were two mental health patients chained up in the back of a police van in the first place? And why were they moved yesterday, and not before Florence made landfall, especially when state and local officials knew for days that severe flooding was likely?
The deaths of Wenton and Green bring the storm's deathtoll to 37. Though in this case, it's possible Florence isn't to blame so much as the officers transporting the two women and the department that waited so long to relocate them.