Neng Thao was remembered Sunday as a student and scholar who was “exactly what you would want your kid to be like.”
Thao, a senior at Edison High School, was at the San Joaquin River in northwest Fresno with his family, celebrating an older brother’s graduation from Fresno State, when he went under the water about 4 p.m. Rescue crews recovered his body about two hours later.
Thao, 18, would have graduated in two weeks as a valedictorian with a 4.21 GPA, Edison High Principal Lindsay Sanders said Sunday.
“He is a representation of the Tigers students,” Sanders said. “He is exactly what you would want your kid to be like.”
Thao was the president of the Hmong Club, aimed to help Hmong students, participated in campaigns to prevent drinking and driving, wanted to help the youth community, and was recently awarded a foreign language award, Sanders said.
After learning of his death Saturday, Sanders shared the news on Twitter, adding “Neng was known for his brilliant smile & caring attitude. RIP.”
Thao was set to graduate on June 5 at the Save Mart Center. Sanders said she will be speaking with students on Monday regarding a possible memorial, and will be honoring Thao at the graduation.
Friends echoed Sanders’ assessment. Sunshine Thor said she had known Thao since middle school and looked at him like a big brother and mentor.
“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.”
Thao had been accepted to the University of California, Berkeley, according to a GoFundMe page raising money for a funeral, and planned to major in political science and pre-med. His dream, according to the page, was to become a pharmacist and maybe someday run for public office.
In 2016, Thao was one of 16 high school and college students in Fresno who was appointed to be the first members of the city’s Youth Commission. He was appointed by Ashley Swearengin, former Fresno mayor who is now CEO of the Central Valley Community Foundation.
Lee Brand, who succeeded Swearengin as Fresno mayor, issued a statement, posted with a photo on Instagram of Thao receiving reappointment to the city’s Youth Commission.
“This is a heartbreaking loss for our entire community, and on behalf of the City of Fresno, I’d like to express our deepest sympathies to the family and friends of Neng Thao,” Brand said. “He was an exceptional young man and a valued leader on the City’s Youth Commission, where he was a Mayoral appointee. Neng made a positive impact on everyone he met and and we are all deeply saddened by the news of this tragic loss.”
On Saturday, Thao and his family were at the San Joaquin River celebrating his brother’s graduation with highest honors from Fresno State, the GoFundMe page said. Thao’s brother, Touyee Thao, had just received his master’s degree in plant science and was a graduate medalist – a top honor for graduate students. After his brother’s death, Touyee Thao responded to a message from a Bee reporter seeking to do a story on his Fresno State honors: “My accomplish(ment) today is nothing compared to his. He’s the smartest of us siblings... I think his story is more worthy of an article than mine.”
Fresno Fire Deputy Chief Todd Tuggle said 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, Tuggle said.
About 90 minutes later the body was found submerged at 18 feet, Tuggle said.
“(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.
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.”