Weeks after dying, 2 remain stuck in river
Officials outline plan to recover the bodies of students who were visiting national park.
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.”
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 officials discuss efforts to recover the two crash victims’ bodies with their families and officials from the Thai Consulate.