Car believed to hold 2 bodies pulled from Fresno County river

FRESNO, Calif. (AP) — A recovery team using a helicopter and a hoist on Friday dragged a car from the middle of a dangerous California river where it had been stranded for more than a month and believed to hold the bodies of two exchange students from Thailand.

The car had crashed through a guardrail and plunged 500 feet (152 meters) over a cliff in the Sierra Nevada below into the Kings River, authorities said.

After more than a month of planning and waiting for the river water to calm, a helicopter lowered members of the recovery team. They dragged the car 100 (30 meters) through rapids to the riverbank, Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims said.

They'll next remove the bodies, said Mims, who also briefed relatives of the crash victims who traveled to California.

On July 26, the exchange students were driving a vehicle on curvy Highway 180 along a steep canyon 75 miles (120 kilometers) east of Fresno when it crashed and became lodged on boulders in the middle of the river.

The slow pace to launch the recovery had prompted emotional pleas to authorities from relatives traveling in from Asia.

But only now has the river — with thundering rapids fed by massive amounts of snowmelt high in the Sierra Nevada — calmed enough to make conditions safe for the recovery team, officials said. Investigators linked the car with the students who had planned to visit Kings Canyon National Park, famous for its sweeping mountain vistas and giant sequoia trees.

Thiwadee Saengsuriyarit, 24, and her male friend Pakapol Chairatnathrongporn, 28, had been enrolled at the University of South Florida. Authorities will await autopsies to confirm their identities. Friday's recovery effort did not include a second car in the same stretch of the river believed to hold a missing couple from China. Publicity of the first stranded car and the trail of wreckage led investigators to the white car submerged nearby.

Authorities have linked it with Yinan Wang, 31, and Jie Song 30, missing seen since early August. The river's flow has to drop even more before it's safe for the second recovery, officials said.