Death in the Sierra



In early August, details started trickling in of two missing post-graduate students from Thailand. The pair, Thiwadee Sangsuriyarit, 24, and Bhakapon Chairatanatongporn, nicknamed “Golf,” 28, were exchange students at South Florida University. 

It is probable that the facts of this mysterious disappearance will never be fully known, but it has become apparent that the couple was traveling up-canyon on Highway 180, perhaps after visiting the Cedar Grove area of Kings Canyon National Park. They were in the Horseshoe Bend area of Sequoia National Forest when their red rental car left the roadway and sheered off a guardrail post and peeled the guardrail back onto itself before the vehicle plunged over the embankment and landed in the fast-moving South Fork of the Kings River 500 feet below. 
The accident occurred on July 26; the couple was reported missing when they didn’t return to their hotel in Reedley.
When initially discovered, the vehicle was submerged in the whitewater. It has been confirmed that there are two bodies in the car, but because of the steep canyon walls, deep river gorge, and raging water, rescuers have been unable to safely retrieve the victims’ remains or the vehicle.
This accident has become an international incident because of the delay in recovering the victims. The families, who are desperate to recover their loved ones from the submerged car, reached out to the Thai consulate in Los Angeles. 
And now, instead of obtaining visas to attend a family member’s graduation from SFU, the Thai families have traveled to the U.S. to work with authorities to claim the remains of their loved ones.
So far, the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office has not provided a timeline to recover the victims, but the operation could commence any day now. The water level has receded since the car was first discovered, but is still deemed treacherous due to the narrow canyon.
It is unknown what caused the vehicle to leave the roadway. 
Horseshoe Bend is located about 22 miles from Kings Canyon National Park’s Grant Grove Village on Highway 180, but is not within the park boundary. It is less than two miles up-canyon from Boyden’s Cave, which is where Highway 180 drops down to meet and cross the Kings River.


The route here is memorable as the river gorge narrows and curves dramatically — hence the name “Horseshoe Bend” — with dizzying views of cliffs that stand tall and unbroken. 
The Fresno County Sheriff’s Office is investigating the mysterious circumstances of a vehicle accident that may have resulted in the death of a husband and wife who had been reported missing.
On the morning of Friday, Aug. 11, a report came into FCSO from a family member who said Yinan Wang, 31, and his wife, Jie Song, 30, did not return home to San Diego on August 9 as planned after their trip to Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and Yosemite national parks. Wang is a Chinese national who has lived in San Diego for about a year; Song lives in China and visits her husband several times a year. 
Reportedly, the couple was last seen by the family member on Sunday, Aug. 6, about 2 p.m., after touring Crystal Cave in Sequoia National Park. From there, it was reported that Wang and Song planned to head to Kings Canyon National Park, stay in a Fresno hotel that night, and continue on to Yosemite National Park the next day. They were scheduled to return home to San Diego on Wednesday, Aug. 9. 
Wang and Song had a reservation in Yosemite for August 7, and it was confirmed they never arrived. Sequoia National Park received a similar report on the missing couple the same day. 
Wang and Song’s vehicle was described as a 2012 white Ford Focus with California license plate 6XMM431.
Now the story takes a crazy twist, so let’s back up about three days—  On Tuesday, Aug. 8, members of the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office search-and-rescue team were working in the Horseshoe Bend area of Highway 180. This was in relation to the recovery operation being planned for the Thai post-grad students’ car that went through a guardrail, off a 500-foot cliff, and into the Kings River on July 26 (see previous story on this page).  
On the evening of August 8, a FCSO deputy, watching local news coverage about the incident on television, saw a video clip in the story of a license plate, 6XMM431, lying in the brush. 
The deputy, also a member of the SAR team, knew the plate did not belong to the car in the river, which is presumed to have been carrying the male and female students from Thailand.  
So the deputy performed a records check on the plate to see if the vehicle had been reported missing, stolen, or involved in an accident. Results showed the plate belonged to a 2012 Ford Focus, but no report had been filed in relation to the car.  
Information about the license plate and vehicle parts found in the area was provided to the California Highway Patrol. Three days later, on August 11, the missing persons report came in for Yanin Wang and Jie Song, and the connection with the detached license plate in the brush became disturbingly apparent to investigators.
On Saturday, Aug. 12, both FCSO and CHP flew their helicopters above the canyon where the red rental car was known to be in the river, but this time to check for signs of a white car. The personnel found a “white object” in the water about 40 yards downstream from the red car that has since been identified as Wang and Song’s vehicle, but investigators so far haven’t been able to determine if the vehicle is intact or if bodies are inside. The subsequent investigation has revealed that both cars left the roadway within 50 feet and 11 days of each other.
FCSO and CHP are now working a parallel investigation that involves a second vehicle submerged in the Kings River with possibly another two bodies inside. Rescue personnel are monitoring daily weather patterns and water flows of the river to construct a recovery plan.  A date to carry out either recovery operation has not been determined. 
The South Fork of the Kings River claimed another victim during the same time span that two cars in two presumably separate incidents crashed into the same waterway, killing all four occupants. (See stories on page 6.)
Luca Chiarabini, 47, of San Diego, an experienced canyoneer and caver, died Thursday, Aug. 3, on what would be considered a fairly risk-free exploit in comparison to some of the feats he has accomplished, both above and below ground. Chiarabini drowned when he and two companions attempted a crossing of the swift-flowing Kings River near Yucca Point, a few miles downstream from the two fatal vehicle accidents.  
On Wednesday, Aug. 2, the trio of hikers descended the Yucca Point trail from Highway 180. They crossed the river without incident and camped overnight. 
On the return trip, tragedy struck. Chiarabini, wearing a helmet, wetsuit, and fins, was in the lead. He tied into a rope that had been secured to a rock. But something went awry, and his companions watched in horror as Chiarabini was swept downstream in the whitewater. 
The hikers placed an emergency call for help from their satellite communications device. Deputies, the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office’s helicopter EAGLE One, a CHP helicopter, and members of the sheriff’s search-and-rescue team responded to the area. Chiarabini’s body was discovered submerged downstream.
Chiarabini is credited with several first descents of canyon, cave, and waterfall routes. He gave back to the outdoor community by mentoring and as a search-and-rescue member. He was also the creator of Ropewiki Explorer, an application that runs inside Google Earth to help users find and explore new technical canyons and caves. 
The “Get Outside” podcast hosted Luca Chiarabini in its Episode 32 on July 1, 2016. Here’s how Chiarabini was described in the introduction: “Italian software developer Luca Chiarabini prefers a life chasing adventures. His habitats of choice are dark, damp caves or thundering, cascading rivers. Luca passionately believes in sharing the outdoors with others and does so by documenting uncharted areas, placing new canyon routes, designing software for outdoor exploration, and volunteering as a cave rescue member.”
A climber was who was overdue and the subject of a search apparently died due to a fall. On Thursday, Aug. 10, the Inyo County Sheriff’s Office received a report from his hiking companions that the climber had not returned to his base camp the previous afternoon as planned.
On Wednesday, Aug. 9, Tom Fennessy, 55, of Phoenix, Ariz., reportedly left his companions in camp at Sam Mack Meadow on the Sierra’s east side and set off with the intent of a solo ascent of the Thunderbolt-to-Sill Traverse in the Palisade range, which is on the boundary of Kings Canyon National Park and Inyo National Forest. The technical route summits the peaks of five 14ers (mountains over 14,000 feet in elevation): Thunderbolt Peak (14,003 feet), Starlight Peak (14,200 feet), North Palisade (14,242 feet), Polemonium Peak (14,080 feet), and Mount Sill (14,153 feet).
The route consists of 3rd and 4th class climbing with intermittent pitches of 5th class climbing on some of the summit blocks and, this season, the route includes significant snow and ice to navigate. Completing the traverse in one day is challenging but possible for an experienced mountaineer who travels fast, both on the trail and on technical terrain.
When Fennessy didn’t return as planned, his companions contacted authorities. Personnel from the Inyo County Sheriff’s Office and Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks conducted a joint search operation with assistance from California Highway Patrol aircraft. Assistance was also requested from climbers in the area due to the technical nature of the terrain and the expanded search area.
After searching for four days, on Sunday, Aug. 13, members of the Inyo County Search and Rescue Team located the remains of a climber near the eastern base of Thunderbolt Peak on the Inyo National Forest side of the crest. Although not yet positively identified, the deceased individual matches the description of Tom Fennessy.
On Monday, Aug. 7, the Inyo County Sheriff’s dispatch was notified via satellite phone by an unrelated climbing guide of a stranded party on the face of Starlight Peak in the Palisades group, which straddles the boundary of Kings Canyon National Park and Inyo National Forest. The party consisted of a female, Laura Scull, 46, who was alive and not seriously injured, and a deceased male, Tom Zajicek, 66. 
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks also received a notification via a personal locator beacon of an emergency in the Palisades area. Sequoia-Kings Canyon located the party via helicopter on the Inyo County side of the peak. 
Inyo County Sheriff’s Office requested aerial support and began working with CHP Central Division Air Operations H-40 out of Fresno. An Inyo County SAR member rode with H-40 to survey the situation, however, due to the lateness of the day, high altitude, and wind, they could not complete the rescue. 
Air National Guard was activated for a Chinook, but the steepness of area was not favorable for the size of the large helicopter. After discussing the location of the mission in depth, Inyo County SAR team members determined conditions were not safe for accessing the victims via climbing or rappelling. 
The area of the peak, called “The X,” is known as one of the most dangerous walls in the Palisades. The team decided to request aid from Yosemite Search and Rescue (YOSAR), specifically for their high-angle rescue team. 
YOSAR helicopter 551 responded and was able to rescue Scull just before dark. They returned to the scene the following morning to extract the deceased male.
Further information revealed that the party of two, experienced mountaineers from Durango, Colo., climbed Starlight Peak on Sunday, Aug., 6 via Starlight Buttress. They reached the 14,200-foot summit around 2 p.m. and shortly afterward began their descent along the northwest ridge. 
After a few hours, they left the ridge and began rappelling down the face, no longer following their intended descent route. Partway down the face, an accident occurred while Scull was descending; the system failed and became unattached from the wall. 
Though the rope was no longer attached to the wall, it became tangled on a rock feature and arrested her fall. Scull ended up tangled in the rope, and Zajicek was hanging below. 
Scull used a Prusik knot to extricate herself from the situation. A Prusik consists of a loop of cord that is wrapped around the main rope and back through itself and can be used as a personal tie-in to a safety line. Prusiks are frequently used as a safety catch while raising and lowering people by ropes. Scull was able to reach a small ledge where she waited 26 hours for rescue.


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