By Eliott C. McLaughlin, CNN
Two South Carolina inmates drowned in a prison transport van when floodwater from the aftermath of Hurricane Florence overtook the vehicle, according to the Horry County Sheriff’s Office.
Two deputies were able to escape the vehicle, a news release said. Harrowing police scanner audio provides details into the efforts to save the women, who could be heard talking as rescuers scrambled to save them.
“Tonight’s incident is a tragedy. Just like you, we have questions we want answered,” Horry County Sheriff Phillip Thompson said.
The deputies were transporting the inmates from Conway, near the coast, to Darlington, about 65 miles northwest, on Tuesday night.
As they traveled down US 76 — about a half-mile from the Little Pee Dee River, which separates Mullins from the town of Nichols — high water swept away the vehicle.
“The two deputies attempted to extricate the persons being transported,” the news release said. “Despite persistent and ongoing efforts, floodwater rose rapidly and the deputies were unable to open the doors to reach the individuals inside the van.”
Rescue teams arrived and were able to save the deputies from the van’s roof, but they could not pull the vehicle from the water because it was too dangerous, according to the release.
The river stands at more than 14 feet and is expected to reach 15.6 feet by Thursday night. Flood stage for the Little Pee Dee is 9 feet.
Police scanner captured by CNN affiliate WMBF indicates the floodwater carried the van through a bridge guardrail near the Pee Dee Lodge on the Nichols side of the river.
“The officers report they got out. The van is submerged, and they cannot get their inmates out,” an unidentified person says.
Later, someone else reports, “We have the two deputies that are out of the van and are secure on the boat. The two inmates are in the back of the van — are still in the van — and they’re talking, and they’re working on getting them out now.”
Though the sheriff’s office reported late Tuesday the recovery effort remained ongoing, the Marion County coroner confirmed the inmates had died. Authorities have not provided their identities.
The investigation has been handed over to the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, the news release said.