A teenager set to graduate with honors from Edison High drowned in the San Joaquin River in northwest Fresno on Saturday afternoon, the latest casualty in Valley waterways filled high and running fast after a wet winter.
Neng Thao, 18, would have graduated from Edison High School this year as valedictorian, according to a GoFundMe page.
Thao was reportedly with family about 4 p.m. when he went under near the Palm and Nees access road to the river. A local fisherman met rescue crews at the shore to help, Fresno Fire Deputy Chief Todd Tuggle said, and helped quicken the recovery.
About 90 minutes later the body was found submerged at 18 feet, Tuggle said.
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“(The fisherman) had a depth finder and had very intimate knowledge of the river,” Tuggle said. “He was able to identify some very likely locations where we would find someone beneath the surface of the water.”
It took rescuers about 20 minutes to dive and pull Thao to shore and into an ambulance. There was no pulse, Tuggle said, and he was pronounced dead about 6:30 p.m.
Family, visibly distraught, was at the scene throughout the rescue.
Thao had been accepted to the University of California, Berkeley, according to the GoFundMe page, and planned to major in political science and pre-med. His family was at the river celebrating his brother’s graduation from Fresno State, according to the page.
“It is with great sadness we share that senior, Neng Thao, passed away,” Edison Principal Lindsay Sanders tweeted. “Neng was known for his brilliant smile & caring attitude. RIP.”
Sunshine Thor said she had known Thao since middle school and looked at him like a big brother and mentor. He was president of the Hmong club at Edison and kindhearted.
“He did (everything) he could have done to help the Hmong community, something he was passionate about,” she said. “He wanted to lead our Hmong people to a better future and that made him an inspiration to the young Hmong students at Edison, and to almost everyone that knew him.”
Water levels at the river are about 200 percent of normal, Tuggle said, something the Valley hasn’t seen in years.
And the San Joaquin is not the only danger area. Three people have drowned in the Tule River and five overall since April 14 in Tulare County.
“If you’re at a point where you’re chest high or deeper, your chances of being washed downstream are extremely high,” he said. “The water right along the shore is just a couple feet deep, but the flood channel from the river immediately drops to approximately 10 to 15 feet deep.”