For the families of the crash victims who have been waiting for the recovery of the remains of their loved ones for five weeks, last Friday’s daring extrication and recovery started closure and the healing process in the aftermath of a horrific accident. Their ordeal began on the night of July 26 when CHP officers and Fresno County sheriff’s deputies received a report of a traffic accident in the vicinity of Horseshoe Bend and Convict Flat along Highway 180 in Kings Canyon.
A smashed guardrail indicated where a vehicle had plunged 500 feet into the turgid whitewater of the Kings River below. It was only hours until the vehicle was located in river resting on a rock in cascading rapids.
An identification check revealed that the vehicle was a 2016 Hyundai Sonata that had been rented to two Thai nationals, both enrolled as exchange students at the University of South Florida, and had been reported missing. As the river receded slightly, two bodies could be seen in the wreckage and were presumed to be Pakapol Bhakapon Chairatnathrongporn, 28, and his friend, Thiwadee Saengsuriyarit, 24.
With the river still swollen with snowmelt and flowing at 1,500 cubic feet per second, a rescue in July and early August was deemed too risky. A decision made to wait on a lower flow for a recovery attempt at first focused negative publicity on the would-be rescuers.
After the family and several Thai officials visited the crash site, there was greater understanding, compassion, and patience among all who were involved. On Friday, Sept. 1, an eternity to the victims’ families, a recovery of the bodies and vehicle was executed.
Even with the Kings River now flowing at 400 cfs in the steep gorge, several rescuers and the helicopter crew severely tested the limits of their equipment and nerve. A California Highway Patrol helicopter was used to lower the recovery team into the water in the depths of the steep, narrow canyon. They then used a hand winch to pull the car to the riverbank so they could extricate the bodies.
Once the victims had been removed from the wreckage, they were secured to a hovering helicopter and airlifted to the road above where the Fresno County Coroner was waiting. Crime scene analysts used fingerprints to positively identify the bodies as the two Thai students.
The wreckage of the rental car was left in the canyon to be recovered at a later date. In the course of the investigation, wreckage from a second car, a white 2012 Ford Focus believed to belong to a missing husband and wife — Yinan Wang, 31, and Jie Song, 30 — was spotted in the river near the wreckage of the Thai victims’ rental car.
The Ford Focus is believed to have crashed near where the Thai students crashed, sometime between August 6 and 8. It is still not confirmed whether the wreckage is from the couple’s Ford Focus or that the entire vehicle is submerged in the river.
“At this time, and until the river level lowers, we can only assume that the vehicle is there and the victims are deceased inside,” said Tony Botti, public information officer for the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office. “We’re hoping to locate the Focus and make a recovery attempt on that vehicle later in the month.”