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Floodwater from the Little Pee Dee River flows close to the top of a bridge on Highway 76 near Nichols in Marion County on Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2018, hours before two women drowned in an Horry County jail van there. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Horry County Sheriff Phillip Thompson said he expects to know soon more about what led to the deaths of two mental health patients who drowned inside a jail van that was pulled from floodwater Monday.

Nicolette Green, 43, of Myrtle Beach and Wendy Newton, 45, of Shallotte, N.C., were being taken to hospitals for treatment Sept. 18 when the van went into flood waters on U.S. Highway 76 near Nichols, a small town in Marion County.

Two Horry County Sheriff's Office deputies climbed out but said they couldn't open the van door to reach the passengers.

Rescuers later showed up but couldn't free the women from the metal compartment that imprisoned the passengers. The van slowly sank. Green and Newton drowned.

Divers removed the women's bodies a day later but the van still sat in floodwater from the Little Pee Dee River, which swelled in the days after Tropical Storm Florence dumped heavy rainfall on the Carolinas.

State law enforcement agents, wildlife officers and Marion County sheriff's deputies retrieved the van about 2:30 p.m. Monday from a "washout" on Highway 76, officials said in a statement.

76 bridge.jpg (copy) (copy)

Floodwaters from the Little Pee Dee River cover the bridge and road surface of U.S. Highway 76 North headed into Nichols, a small town in Marion County. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Thompson said his agency is cooperating with a State Law Enforcement Division criminal investigation into the episode. His agency also was doing an internal probe.

The two jail deputies, Stephen Flood and Joshua Bishop, have been placed on administrative leave.

"Just like you, we have questions we want answered," Thompson said Monday in the statement. "We hope we will be provided those answers through the ongoing inquiries in the very near future."

The women had sought treatment for mental health issues; they had not been charged with crimes. But doctors later ordered their emergency commitment, officials said, triggering the involvement of the sheriff's deputies.

Under South Carolina law, most patients being involuntarily committed are driven to hospitals by law enforcement officers. The law contains some exceptions allowing family members or private ambulances to take them but that rarely happens. Advocates last week called for a review of the practice.

It's unknown how the van ended up in the water but Thompson said the deputies are suspected of going around barricades that blocked the flooded road. Authorities have not said which deputy was driving.

Nicolette Green (copy)

Nicolette Green, 43, of Myrtle Beach died Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2018, after the Horry County jail van she was riding in hit floodwater on U.S. Highway 76 outside Nichols. She was being taken to a hospital for treatment. Green family/Provided

Green's loved ones have issued calls of "justice" for someone to be held responsible for the deaths. A Facebook post by one of her sisters echoed the sentiment.

"My sister was not silent when she was in that van for 30 mins, screaming for help, as it was filling up with water," Jewels Green wrote Sunday, as she said her family was preparing to bury her sister in their Pennsylvania hometown. "My sister does not have a voice anymore. I must speak for her, and for others who suffer from the shame and bigotry attached to mental health illness."

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Reach Andrew Knapp at 843-937-5414. Follow him on Twitter @offlede.

Andrew Knapp is editor of the Quick Response Team, which covers crime, courts and breaking news. He previously worked as a reporter and copy editor at Florida Today, Newsday and Bangor (Maine) Daily News. He enjoys golf, weather and fatherhood.

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