A month after the crash, Thai students’ bodies are recovered from Kings River

Aided by a California Highway Patrol helicopter and special equipment obtained in Southern California, the Fresno County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Team on Friday recovered a car carrying two Thai students that plunged off a cliff and into the Kings River in July.

The car was pulled from the fast-moving water to the bank of the Kings. There, the recovery team freed the bodies from the mangled wreckage and hoisted them up to the roadside of Highway 180 where a coroner’s vehicle was waiting.

The car remains in the canyon and will be recovered later, the sheriff’s office said Friday afternoon.

The extraction of the car from the river was a first-of-its-kind recovery, according to officials. As described by Sheriff Margaret Mims, the helicopter lifted members of the team down a 500-foot cliff to a riverbank near the car. There, a member of the team braved chest-high swift water to secure both bodies in the car and then attach two cables to it. From there, the team used a hoist obtained in Southern California and tethered to a rock, slowly ratcheting the cable to pull the car from the river.

Mims explained that the recovery method, which had never been attempted in the same way before, reduced the amount of cable needed to only about 100 feet instead of the 500 that would have been needed for a cliff-top recovery.

Mims said a second car that plunged from Highway 180 into the river nearby has been checked by deputies. However, that car is in a deep hole in the river, and removal of the car will come at a later date because of the difficulties involved, she said.

The bodies in the car pulled out of the Kings on Friday are presumed to be a 28-year-old man and 24-year-old woman who were enrolled as exchange students at the University of South Florida.

The day after the July 26 crash, members of the Sheriff’s Office found a red 2016 Hyundai Sonata in the river.

Records showed it was a rental car belonging to the two exchange students, Bhakapon Chairatnathrongporn and Thiwadee Saengsuriyarit.

Search and rescue officials subsequently evaluated the rapids in the river for a rescue, but the water was moving too fast to safely remove the bodies. Conditions were monitored each day to determine when a recovery operation was viable.

The flow of the river is now about 400 cubic feet per second, and search and rescue officials believed conditions were safer for the recovery.

The coroner’s office will provide positive identification of the bodies, and family members have provided DNA samples, said Mims.

Tanee Sangrat, consul general for the Thai consulate in Los Angeles, expressed gratitude for the rescuers’ efforts. He was at the recovery scene Friday, as were family members who declined to comment. The sheriff previously met with concerned Thai citizens to explain the difficulty and danger of the recovery.

He said Thursday that the students’ story is still being monitored closely both in the U.S. and in Thailand.

“It’s taken much longer than anticipated, and we are hoping for a quick and safe recovery of the students,” Sangrat said.

As for the second vehicle, the recovery team located it a short distance downstream from the red car. It is believed to be a vehicle belonging to a missing Chinese couple, Yinan Wang, 31, and his wife, Jie “Rebecca” Song, 30.

Recovery of that vehicle is likely to prove even more difficult and was left for a later date.

Mims said her team discovered the second car is in a deep pool in the river. It’s likely that the volume and speed of the river will need to decrease more before a recovery effort is attempted.

The 2012 white Ford Focus is believed to have crashed sometime between Aug. 6 and Aug. 8.

Related stories from Fresno Bee