On July 26, a red rental car traveling on Highway 180 in central California crashed through a guard rail and hurtled off a cliff, falling 500 feet into the Kings River below.
More than two weeks later, the mangled vehicle remains lodged amid rocks in the raging waters near Kings Canyon National Park. Attempts to retrieve the “presumed victims” from the car — reportedly two exchange students from Thailand — have been thwarted by weather and river conditions, according to the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office.
The delays have frustrated the Thai communities in California, who have coordinated meetings with the families of the students and with American public officials to try to expedite the retrieval of the bodies. On Friday, the Royal Thai Consulate-General Los Angeles said in a Facebook post that there would be protests staged Monday in Los Angeles and in Fresno if the rescue and recovery had not taken place by then.
In a letter sent to the Fresno County Board of Supervisors on Thursday, Thai Consul-General Tanee Sangrat acknowledged that several factors had “hindered the rescue and recovery operation” but said the delays were causing the families of the two students increasing anguish.
“Notwithstanding the above, the families and Thai communities here in the U.S. and in Thailand cannot be more patient by the fact that it has been 16 days since the occurrence of the unfortunate accident,” Sangrat wrote. “It is painful for us having to report to the heartbroken families of the two students every day the preparation and postponements of the rescue and recovery operation.”
Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims has reassured the Thai families that “recovering their loved ones is a top priority at my office right now.”
“The Fresno County Sheriff Search and Rescue team has a lot of experience and is currently working to develop a plan that is safest for them to effectively do their jobs,” Mims wrote to the families Wednesday, according to a copy of the letter posted by the consulate. “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. We appreciate your patience and understanding.”
Though the Fresno sheriff’s office said it cannot identify who was in the car until their bodies are recovered, its search and rescue team has confirmed there were two people inside. The sheriff’s office also acknowledged it was working with the Thai consulate amid reports the vehicle was carrying a man and a woman from Thailand who were exchange students at the University of South Florida.
A spokeswoman for Thailand’s Foreign Ministry identified the two students as Bhakapon Chairatanathongporn, 28, and Thiwadee Saengsuriyarit, 24, according to the Associated Press.
It is unclear when the Thai state officials were notified and became involved. On Aug. 3, the Royal Thai Consulate-General Los Angeles first publicly posted an update regarding the incident, including photos from the curvy portion of Highway 180 where the crash took place and interviews with law enforcement investigating the scene.
Posted by Royal Thai Consulate-General Los Angeles on Thursday, August 3, 2017
The consulate’s post noted that authorities believe the car was headed to Kings Canyon National Park on July 26 when it crashed through a guard rail and plunged into the Kings River. Two days after the crash, police officers in nearby Reedley, Calif., learned that two Thai tourists had left the Reedley Inn Hotel two days before and never returned.
“(California Highway Patrol) and local authorities have treated this case as a missing person’s case until officials can prove identities of those involved in the car accident,” the consulate wrote then. “On the day of the accident, water levels were high due to the summer snow melt adding to the strong current of the river.”
Though a search and rescue operation began on the evening of July 26, the area’s steep terrain and the Kings River’s strong rapids prevented teams from retrieving the vehicle. A helicopter dispatched to the crash site was able to take pictures of the vehicle — but since all the air bags had deployed inside the car, authorities couldn’t say for certain whether anyone was inside.
The consulate’s Aug. 3 post included a hopeful note: “Rescue team of the Sheriff-Coroner’s Office and CHP have explored the terrain and monitored the river levels daily to prepare to recover the vehicle and debris. The water level has continually decreased and the recovery operation may be done soon.”
The following day, the families of the missing Thai students arrived in the United States. They have since visited the site of the accident and prayed at local Buddhist temples, according to the consulate.
Consulate received families of missing Thai students and is heading to Reedley, CA, in 3hrs. Meeting police and expedite search and rescue.
— Royal Thai Consulate (@ThaiCGLA) August 4, 2017
From that point, the families continued to anxiously await a recovery operation that was repeatedly delayed, first by wind storms and then by high water levels in the river.
“Both Thai families feel disappointed and sad. Even more sorry to hear the news of not such a rescue tomorrow,” the consulate wrote Aug. 6. “The families are more distraught after hearing the update.”
The Fresno County Sheriff’s Office said Thursday that military personnel are now involved in planning a recovery operation. On Thursday, a military Chinook helicopter surveyed the area to take additional photos.
“To reiterate, recovering the bodies is a top priority, but the safety of our personnel is also a top concern and it will dictate any efforts we make moving forward with the operation,” the sheriff’s office stated Thursday. “A date of when this will happen is still to be determined.”