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The US recovery operation that last Friday successfully retrieved the remains of the two Thai postgraduate students whose rented car plunged into Kings River in Fresno, California, on July 26 was the first of its kind and required almost 60 personnel and specialised equipment, including a purpose-built pulley.
Thairath online yesterday quoted Fresno County Sheriff’s Department spokesman Tony Botti as saying the operation was the first of its kind in 26 years, meaning there was no precedent to use as a reference to safely retrieve the bodies and car from the steep ravine, where it was partially submerged in a torrential river.
Both Thiwadee Saengsuriyarit, 24, and Bhakapon Chairattanasongporn, 28, were believed to have been killed in the crash.
Botti said a large pulley that had been made in southern California arrived in Fresno a week before the operation.
Officials from six related agencies spent a week planning and practising the recovery operation, he added.
According to the Facebook page of the Royal Thai Consulate General in Los Angeles, about 55 personnel from the Fresno Sheriff County Search and Rescue (SAR), California Highway Patrol (CHP), CalTrans Department and volunteers participated in the recovery along Highway 180 and the Kings River starting at 5.30am on Friday.
The SAR used a CHP helicopter to drop several deputies into the river with a cable, which the team attached to the 2016 Hyundai Sonata that had been stuck against a rock to pull it a short distance to a spot with slower moving water. Officials then opened the car’s doors, extricated the bodies and slowly hoisted them with the helicopter to the roadside, where a coroner’s unit was stationed.
A drone was also used to record the recovery process.
The victims’ family members met the transport team at Convict Flat Campground where a monk performed a brief Buddhist religious rite.
Sheriff Margaret Mims had told the Consulate that the SAR team had practised the recovery protocol in a nearby area with a similar terrain before performing the actual recovery operation to ensure their safety and a successful result.
The team also gave their condolences to the victims’ families, she said.
“I would like to thank the families of the victims for their patience and understanding during this long, difficult process. It’s always been our goal to deliver peace to you so that you could hold the necessary services for your loved ones. Hopefully, you may now move forward in the healing process.
I would also like to thank Thailand’s US Consulate office in Los Angeles and the greater Thai community for its support throughout this operational planning phase. Having an open line of communication and knowing you were by our side was invaluable.
“Finally, I want to thank our personnel and other agencies such as the CHP and Caltrans for their hard work of rising to the challenge and reaching a successful outcome. This truly was a team effort,” Mims said.
The remains, believed to be of the two South Florida University students, were then sent to the coroner’s office for autopsy and collection of fingerprints, dental records and possibly DNA samples to positively identify the bodies and the cause of death.
The identification process will take about a week.
The victims will be cremated at the Thai funeral parlour PimanThai, which will provide services free of charge, before Bhakapon’s family will scatter his ashes over the water in Los Angeles. Thiwadee’s family will bring the ashes back to Thailand, the Facebook page said.
Efforts to retrieve the students’ bodies were delayed because of the high water levels and strong currents in the river as well as bad weather, which could have threatened the safety of the rescue teams.
The delay had led to some criticism of US agencies who were viewed as not wanting to recover the bodies because the victims were Asian, not Americans, although US authorities have dismissed the allegation.
The Fresno County Sheriff’s Office decided to retrieve the remains last Friday as the flow of the river gradually decreased