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Thai families, media fume over delays recovering students’ bodies from Kings River

A simulated drive to where bodies remain trapped in the Kings River

The crash sites along windy Highway 180 and the swollen Kings River where the bodies of two Thai exchange students and a Chinese couple are believed to remain. The separate crashes happened in July. Authorities are waiting for the surging water to
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The crash sites along windy Highway 180 and the swollen Kings River where the bodies of two Thai exchange students and a Chinese couple are believed to remain. The separate crashes happened in July. Authorities are waiting for the surging water to

Emergency officials in Fresno County are under fire from Thai media and citizens frustrated by the weeks-long delay in recovering a car with the bodies of two Thai college students that remains lodged in the middle of the swollen Kings River.

The Thai consul-general in Los Angeles confirmed Thursday that the family is increasingly anxious about recovering the bodies. While their identities haven’t been confirmed, a letter from a family member to the U.S. Embassy in Thailand says they were Bhakapon Chairatanathongporn and Thiwadee Saengsuriyarit, exchange students attending the University of South Florida.

The story of the two students has blanketed Thai media and social media among the Thai population in the United States and Thailand.

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The Kings River roils around the rental car believed to hold the bodies of Thai students Thiwadee Saengsuriyarit, 24, and Bhakapon Chairatanathongporn, 28, near Convict Flat near Kings Canyon National Park. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA ezamora@fresnobee.com

The students’ car plunged off of Highway 180, about 75 miles east of Fresno, and tumbled 500 feet down into the canyon and came to rest on a boulder in the middle of the Kings River on July 26. Runoff from this winter’s heavy snowmelt has made the river treacherous for recovery crews, who have been cautious about risking their own lives to retrieve the car and the bodies inside.

In an Aug. 9 letter, Chairanathongporn’s uncle, Ekachai Taidecha, wrote the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok saying he “cannot bear the grief and sorrow of my beloved sister.”

Taidecha said he is working on getting a Thai rescue team to travel to Fresno County to recover the bodies.

Had this incident occurred in Thailand, the Thai rescue team would have been able to complete the operation within 12 hours.

Ekachai Taidecha, uncle of missing student in a letter to U.S. embassy in Thailand

“Two weeks have passed and the state of California failed to retrieve the bodies of both students,” said the letter addressed to H.E. Glyn T. Davies, the U.S. Ambassador to Thailand. “Had this incident occurred in Thailand, the Thai rescue team would have been able to complete the operation within 12 hours regardless the weather condition without the assistance of a helicopter.”

Tanee Sangrat, Thai Consul-General in Los Angeles, said the families are distressed about their missing loved ones, who were staying at a Reedley motel on July 26 and didn’t return. He said the family member is acting on his own to send a Thai rescue team to California. He said his office wasn’t involved.

“The families are very sad, very distressed about the whole thing and it’s hard for them to understand why it’s taken so long, and it’s hard for me to explain it to them,” he said.

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A broken guardrail remains where a rental car believed to be carrying Thai students Thiwadee Saengsuriyarit, 24, and Bhakapon Chairatanathongporn, 28, plunged into the Kings River near Kings Canyon National Park. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA ezamora@fresnobee.com

Sangrat said he visited the site of the crash, where the car is precariously perched on a rock in the middle of the Kings River. He said he accompanied the families to the site and they are waiting anxiously for any word about a recovery plan to remove the car from the river.

“We coordinate with the families and the authorities and we know the authorities are watching this by the hour,” Sangrat said. “It’s a huge responsibility for the local authorities and I thank them for doing all that they are doing and hope they do everything they can to recover the bodies on an urgent basis.”

Fresno County Sheriff’s officials met Thursday with military staff to discuss potential recovery plans after the military used a Chinook helicopter to survey the area to assess the geography, water and weather conditions, said sheriff’s spokesman Tony Botti. There’s no plan in place yet to recover the bodies.

Meanwhile, Sheriff Margaret Mims wrote to the parents of the students to assure them that recovering their bodies in a respectful manner is a top priority. Her office also reaffirmed in a news release that safety of its rescue personnel is also a priority, and will dictate recovery efforts.

“I realize this is a difficult situation and want you to know that our goal is to recover your family members in a respectful manner as soon as an opportunity presents itself,” Mims wrote the families.

California Highway Patrol officers discovered the car in the river about 6:45 p.m. on July 26. Officer Vic Taylor said there was too little daylight left to summon a helicopter from Fresno to begin a rescue operation.

“We are doing everything we can. We don’t want the car and the victims down there either, but we have no way to dam the water or shut it off,” he said.

Taylor said he has spoken with Sangrat and the families.

“We answered any questions and clarified anything we could for them,” he said. “We are monitoring it minute by minute.”

Had this incident occurred in Thailand, the Thai rescue team would have been able to complete the operation within 12 hours.

Ekachai Taidecha, uncle of missing student in a letter to U.S. embassy in Thailand

Sangrat also has been consulting with Fresno County Supervisor Nathan Magsig, who assured him that county recovery crews and the CHP are working diligently to develop a plan, while being mindful of water, wind and terrain conditions that make it dangerous for those crews.

Magsig said the CHP, sheriff’s office, state Office Of Emergency Services and city of Fresno emergency officials have been to the site trying to assist with ideas to retrieve the car and the bodies inside. He said the car’s condition isn’t known. Officials want to know that if they call in an air crane helicopter, the car can be pulled out intact.

Magsig is sensitive to the families’ pain. In 1998, his father died in a small plane crash on Mount Goddard in the Sierra Nevada. It took six days to find the plane and a seventh day to retrieve his father’s body.

“They couldn’t go up and remove the bodies because of weather,” he said. “Some of those memories have come back and my heart really goes out to these families.”

Magsig said “our top priority is to retrieve those bodies, but we want to make sure the rescuers will be safe, too... we are doing everything humanly possible.”

Marc Benjamin: 559-441-6166, @beebenjamin

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