Weeks af­ter dy­ing, 2 re­main stuck in river

Of­fi­cials out­line plan to re­cover the bod­ies of stu­dents who were vis­it­ing na­tional park.

Los Angeles Times - - CITY & STATE - By Hai­ley Branson-Potts and Ruben Vives hai­ley.branson @la­times.com ruben.vives@la­times.com Times staff writer Joseph Serna con­trib­uted to this re­port. Branson-Potts re­ported from Reed­ley; Vives and and Serna re­ported from Los An­ge­les.

REED­LEY, Calif. — Fresno County sher­iff ’s of­fi­cials dis­cussed re­cov­ery ef­forts Fri­day with the Royal Thai Con­sulate Gen­eral in Los An­ge­les and the fam­i­lies of two ex­change stu­dents who died when their car plunged into the Kings River more than two weeks ago.

The meet­ing came a day af­ter the Thai Con­sulate warned of protests un­less the stu­dents’ bod­ies were pulled from the river soon. The vic­tims’ fam­i­lies told the As­so­ci­ated Press that they would con­sider hir­ing a pri­vate com­pany to re­trieve the bod­ies.

“We out­lined the chal­lenges we’re fac­ing and also showed them some im­ages and video so they can get a bet­ter per­spec­tive,” said Tony Botti, a spokesman for the Fresno County Sher­iff ’s Of­fice. “It es­tab­lished a good one-on-one re­la­tion­ship.”

The crum­pled ve­hi­cle was spot­ted at the bot­tom of the treach­er­ous river gorge last month, not far from Con­vict Flat Camp­ground in Hume. The rapid lies be­tween two canyon faces more than 500 feet high.

Fresno County sher­iff’s of­fi­cials have been try­ing to de­ter­mine the safest way of re­cov­er­ing the bod­ies, which are be­lieved to be in­side the car.

In a Face­book post, the con­sulate ex­plained Fri­day’s dis­cus­sions with sher­iff ’s of­fi­cials, not­ing that the agen­cies in­volved were mak­ing the re­cov­ery ef­forts a top pri­or­ity and would not al­low any pri­vate agency or per­son to re­trieve the bod­ies be­cause such ef­forts could be fa­tal and il­le­gal.

“The re­cov­ery must be very care­ful,” the Face­book post read. “The tor­rents and rapids are about 30 feet away from the point where the car is stuck and there are three more rapids in the same man­ner.”

Botti said au­thor­i­ties can­not use a he­li­copter to re­cover the car be­cause the ve­hi­cle’s struc­tural in­tegrity is un­known and be­cause the canyon poses danger­ous con­di­tions to the air­craft.

“You might rip it in half and get part of it,” he said of the car. “There’s also a wind fac­tor. The canyon zigzags and cre­ates strange wind pat­terns, so if you send a he­li­copter, it can jog­gle the air­craft and make it danger­ous for per­son­nel.”

For now, of­fi­cials are mon­i­tor­ing the flow of the river and hope that by mid­week, it will have re­ceded enough that re­cov­ery crews can re­trieve the bod­ies, Botti said.

Au­thor­i­ties think the two stu­dents, a man and a woman from Thai­land who were at­tend­ing the Uni­ver­sity of South Florida on an ex­change pro­gram, ac­ci­den­tally drove off a curve on High­way 180 and plum­meted to the river.

The ve­hi­cle’s airbags de­ployed, mak­ing it vir­tu­ally im­pos­si­ble to see in­side the car from a dis­tance.

Au­thor­i­ties have used a mil­i­tary he­li­copter and planned to use a drone to sur­vey the con­di­tions in the river and the car, of­fi­cials said.

The con­sulate said the two stu­dents were stay­ing at the Reed­ley Inn as part of a visit to Kings Canyon Na­tional Park and were driv­ing back into the park at the time of the crash.

The Fresno Bee has iden­ti­fied the stu­dents as Bhakapon Chairatanathong­porn and Thi­wadee Saeng­suri­yarit.

Vaib­hav Pa­tel, 34, told The Times on Sat­ur­day that the two checked into his fam­ily’s 22-room mo­tel, about 10 miles south of High­way 180, on July 25. Pa­tel said his mother met the stu­dents and de­scribed them as “re­ally nice peo­ple.”

He said the stu­dents had rented the room for two nights and were sup­posed to check out Thurs­day. That morn­ing, Pa­tel said, his par­ents went into the room to do house­keep­ing and no­ticed that the stu­dents’ be­long­ings were still there and they were nowhere to be found. The fam­ily thought maybe they stayed in one of the parks and camped overnight. But by Thurs­day night, when they hadn’t seen them, his par­ents “had a bad feel­ing,” Pa­tel said.

On Fri­day morn­ing, Pa­tel called the po­lice. Later that day, law en­force­ment of­fi­cials came to the mo­tel and said they’d found a red car in the river but couldn’t tell whether it was the stu­dents’ be­cause it was so far down. Pa­tel’s mother re­mem­bered the red car, and se­cu­rity cam­era footage showed the rental ve­hi­cle. Pa­tel said the of­fi­cers wouldn’t say it was the stu­dents’ car, but he had a feel­ing that it was.

“This is too much of a co­in­ci­dence,” he thought.

Days later a news re­port named the stu­dents, con­firm­ing what he al­ready knew.

Pa­tel said he is a reg­is­tered nurse who works in a nearby hos­pi­tal and is used to deal­ing with death. He said he could un­der­stand the frus­tra­tion of fam­i­lies over not be­ing able to im­me­di­ately re­cover the bod­ies.

“For this long? It’s still shock­ing, for some­one to be stuck this long, for the fam­ily not to have clo­sure,” he said, shak­ing his head.

“At least a cou­ple of times a day I think about it,” he said. “It’s like, when are they go­ing to get the ve­hi­cle out? With the tech­nol­ogy and ev­ery­thing, how can they not? But then you think about it, and it’s putting some­one else’s life at risk.”

Fresno County Sher­iff’s Of­fice

A CAR be­lieved to hold the bod­ies of two stu­dents has sat in the Kings River for more than two weeks. Au­thor­i­ties be­lieve the vic­tims ac­ci­den­tally drove off a curve on High­way 180 and plum­meted into the river.

Fresno County Sher­iff’s Of­fice

FRESNO COUNTY sher­iff’s of­fi­cials dis­cuss ef­forts to re­cover the two crash vic­tims’ bod­ies with their fam­i­lies and of­fi­cials from the Thai Con­sulate.

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