Fresno County authorities meet with Thai Consulate, family of Kings River crash victims to discuss recovery

Fresno County sheriff’s officials discussed recovery efforts Friday with the Royal Thai Consulate-General Los Angeles and the families of two exchange students who died when their car plunged into the Kings River more than two weeks ago.

The meeting came a day after the Thai Consulate warned of protests unless the students’ bodies were pulled from the river soon. The victims’ families told the Associated Press that they would consider hiring a private company to get the bodies.

“We outlined the challenges we’re facing and also showed them some images and video so they can get a better perspective” said Tony Botti, a spokesman for the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office. “It established a good one-on-one relationship.”

The crumpled vehicle was first spotted at the bottom of the treacherous river gorge last month, not far from Convict Flat Campground in Hume. The rapid lies between two canyon faces more than 500 feet high.

Fresno County sheriff’s officials have been trying to determine the safest way of recovering the bodies, which are believed to be inside the vehicle.

In a Facebook post, the Thai Consulate explained Friday’s discussions with sheriff’s officials to its community, noting that the agencies involved were making the recovery efforts a top priority and would not allow any private agency or person to recover the bodies because such efforts could be fatal and illegal.

“The recovery must be very careful,” the Facebook post read. “The torrents and rapids are about 30 feet away from the point where the car is stuck and there are three more rapids in the same manner.”

Botti said authorities cannot use a helicopter to recover the car because the vehicle’s structural integrity is unknown and because the canyon poses dangerous conditions to the aircraft.

“You might rip it in half and get part of it,” he said of the car. “There’s also a wind factor. The canyon zigzags and creates strange wind patterns, so if you send a helicopter, it can joggle the aircraft and make it dangerous for personnel.”

For now, officials are monitoring the flow of the river and hope that by midweek, it will have receded enough so that recovery crews can retrieve the bodies, Botti said.

According to the sheriff’s office, the car’s occupants are believed to be a man and woman from Thailand who were attending the University of South Florida on an exchange program. Authorities think they accidentally drove through a curve on Highway 180 and plummeted to the river.

The vehicle’s airbags deployed, making it virtually impossible to see inside the vehicle from a distance.

Authorities have used a military helicopter and planned to use a drone to survey the conditions in the river and the car, officials said.

The Thai Consulate said the two were staying at the Reedley Inn as part of a visit to Kings Canyon National Park. They were driving back into the park at the time of the crash.

Authorities have not identified the victims, but the Fresno Bee said they were Bhakapon Chairatanathongporn and Thiwadee Saengsuriyarit.

Vaibhav Patel, 34, told The Times on Saturday that the students had checked into his family’s 22-room motel, about 10 miles south of Highway 180, on July 25. Patel said his mother met the students and described them as “really nice people.”

He said the students had rented the room for two nights and were supposed to check out Thursday. That morning, Patel said, his parents went into the room to do housekeeping and noticed that the students’ belongings were still there and they were nowhere to be found.

The family thought maybe they stayed in one of the parks and camped overnight. But by Thursday night, when they hadn’t seen them, his parents “had a bad feeling,” Patel said.

His father said that if the students didn’t return the next morning, they should file a police report just in case they got stranded and didn’t have a signal, he said.

On Friday morning, Patel called the police.

Later that day, law enforcement officials came to the motel and said they’d found a red car in the river but couldn’t tell whether it was the students’ because it was so far down. Patel’s mother remembered the red car, and their security camera footage showed the rental vehicle.

Patel said the officers wouldn’t say it was the students’ car, but he had a gut feeling that it was. “This is too much of a coincidence,” he thought.

Days later a local news report named the students, confirming what he already knew.

“After we heard the news, we just prayed for their family, that hopefully everyone is OK and they stay strong,” he said.

Patel said he is a registered nurse who works in a nearby hospital and is used to dealing with death. He said he could understand the frustration of families over not being able to immediately recover the bodies.

“For this long? It’s still shocking, for someone to be stuck this long, for the family not to have closure,” he said, shaking his head.

“At least a couple of times a day I think about it,” he said. “It’s like, when are they going to get the vehicle out? With the technology and everything, how can they not? But then you think about it, and it’s putting someone else’s life at risk.”

hailey.branson@latimes.com

ruben.vives@latimes.com

joseph.serna@latimes.com

Times staff writer Joseph Serna contributed to this report. Branson-Potts reported from Reedley, and Vives and and Serna reported from Los Angeles.

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UPDATES:

3:10 p.m.: This story was updated with new information about the victims.

This story was originally posted at 1:10 p.m.

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