Bodies recovered from Kings River confirmed to be those of missing Thai students

A car in the middle of the Kings River that contained the bodies of two Thai nationals.
(Fresno County Sheriff’s Office / EPA)

Two bodies pulled from a mangled car that had been trapped for weeks in the middle of a treacherous Kings River gorge in Central California were confirmed to be those of two missing Thai students, the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office said.

The bodies of University of South Florida exchange students Pakapol Chairatnathrongporn, 28, and Thiwadee Saengsuriyarit, 24, were recovered Friday and identified through fingerprints over the long weekend, said sheriff’s spokesman Tony Botti.

The car, a red Hyundai Sonata, had plummeted 500 feet after plowing through a guardrail on Highway 180 on July 26, authorities said. Since then, the smashed vehicle has rested on a pile of boulders amid raging waters.


Search-and-rescue crews from the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office pulled the sedan to the riverbank Friday, then retrieved the bodies from the car, Botti said.

The bodies were flown in a California Highway Patrol helicopter to a nearby road for transfer to the Fresno County coroner’s office.

Chairatnathrongporn and Saengsuriyarit were visiting Kings Canyon National Park when the manager of the motel they were staying in reported them missing.

Sheriff Margaret Mims thanked the families of the two missing students for their patience during the weeks-long wait to recover the bodies.

“It’s always been our goal to deliver peace to you so that you could hold the necessary services for your loved ones,” Mims said in a statement.

Recovery of the bodies was delayed because of the hazardous location of the pair’s rental car, officials said.

The car was trapped in the middle of a rapid that lies between two canyon faces more than 500 feet high, with a 75-foot drop about 100 feet downriver, Botti said. Those conditions made its recovery dangerous, he said.

In the time officials prepared for the recovery effort, they also found signs of another couple who disappeared recently from Sequoia National Park and also may have driven off the same section of highway, roughly 75 miles east of Fresno.

Yinan Wang, 31, and his wife, Jie Song, 30, were last seen at Sequoia National Park’s Crystal Cave on Aug. 6. They were expected to drive north and stay the night in Fresno before continuing on to Yosemite National Park. The California license plate from the couple’s rental car was spotted about 40 yards upstream from the Thai couple’s vehicle.

They have not been found.

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Staff writer Javier Panzar contributed to this report.