American authorities could face protests if they do not expedite the retrieval of the bodies of two Thai postgraduate students believed to have died in a car crash almost two weeks ago in California, the Thai Consulate in Los Angeles has said.
Protests are planned in Fresno county, the scene of the accident, and Los Angeles, as frustration mounts with the slow progress of the operation. The consulate said on Facebook that protests would proceed if the rescue and recovery operation were not launched today. Thiwadee Saengsuriyarit, 24, and Bhakapon Chairattanasongporn, 28, were driving on a highway on July 26 to Kings Canyon National Park when their rental car plunged off a 150-metre cliff and came to rest partially submerged in a river.
Fresno county officials have been blaming bad weather, strong currents and high water from melting snow for the slow pace of the operation. Hopes that the pair survived the accident were dashed when Consulate General Tanee Sangrat said this week that the bodies of the students had been found in the car.
The consulate wrote that the families of the two students on Wednesday met with Michelle Steel, president of supervisory board of Orange county. They asked Steel for her support to urge the Fresno County Coroner's Office to speed up the work, as it was almost half a month since the accident.
Steel told the families that she had been informed by the Fresno county office that a rescue team would descend the cliff and draw up a plan to retrieve the students and the car. Coroner Magaret Mims told Steel and the families in a letter that she regarded the retrieval mission as a top priority. "They have realised that this is difficult time for the families and their targets are to retrieve the bodies of the students with highest respect," the consulate reported.
The consulate has coordinated with and received the support of elected officials in California including Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who has asked the consulate to convey his support for the efforts of the consulate and the Thai-American community. Today, Jim McDonell, Los Angeles County sheriff, is coordinating with his counterpart in Fresno County.
In Bangkok, Ekkachai Taidecha, uncle of Bhakapon, applied yesterday for entry visas for a Thai rescue team, saying Thais should take over if US authorities continued to fail to act.
"If this accident happened in Thailand, Thai rescuers would be able to get the bodies within 12 hours, no matter how bad the weather was. They would not have to use a helicopter," he said. "It hurts to see my sister, who is now waiting for the retrieval in the US, endure the suffering and grief every second that passes."
In response to Ekkachai's symbolic protest, the US Embassy issued a statement. "We are closely following the situation and express our heartfelt condolences to the families and friends of the two Thai students involved in this tragic accident in California."