Answers sought for slow US rescue

Cliff crash: The rental car of Pakkapol 'Golf' Chairattanasongporn and Thiwadee 'Min' Saengsuriyarit fell from a height of around 150 metres and crashed into the Kings River near Fresno. (AP photos)

After Pakkapol "Golf" Chairattanasongporn, 28, got his bachelor's degree in engineering at one of Thailand's top universities, he became the hope of his family. He landed a good job at a Japanese company, where he worked for two years before deciding to further his education.

Golf was accepted for a master's degree in industrial engineering at the University of South Florida in the United States. He left Thailand two years ago to pursue his goal.

Going to the US was Golf's shot at giving his family a better future. His parents were not particularly affluent, but they worked hard to raise the required funds for their son to study overseas.

The close bond he shared with mother Supin Chairattanasongporn led him to call her every day of the past two years spent living in the US on the Line app.

He was on track to graduate this year, but before that and his return to Thailand, he wanted to go on a vacation in the US.

He invited his friend, Thiwadee "Min" Saengsuriyarit, 24, to join him on a camping trip at Kings Canyon National Park in California.

His family knew he was taking the trip. They weren't surprised -- he was an adventure lover. It was meant to be the trip of a lifetime, but what Golf didn't know was that it would also be the last trip of his life.

LAST WISH

The trip that Golf and Min were on was going well. They rented a car and Golf was confident at the wheel. But after July 26, Ms Supin never heard anything from her son. He hadn't left her a single message or even shared an update on his Facebook.

Ms Supin became distressed over the idea that something bad had happened to her son. Friends of Golf and Min started using social media to publicly inquire about their whereabouts.

The Thai world of social media began to pick up on the matter. After less than a week, a missing person advert featuring Golf and Min started circulating on social media. The whole country became consumed by the mystery of where they were and what had happened to them.

One week after the missing person ad was issued, Ms Supin's worst fears were confirmed. She heard from a Thai news agency in the US that Golf and Min had got into an accident at Kings River, where their car was found at the bottom of the gorge.

It appeared that Golf had overshot a road curve and plunged into the river. The car was still visible above the surface of the river. The first attempt to rescue the two Thai students had failed due to poor weather conditions and the strong river currents in late July.

The next rescue attempt was scheduled for Aug 7. But by the time the date came around, the rescue team still felt it wasn't safe to launch.

As time passed, the families of Golf and Min arrived at the realisation that they likely wouldn't see their loved ones return alive. Too much time had passed for them to survive in such conditions. They accepted that the rescue mission would only really be a body recovery mission.

Day after day, the mission still failed to launch. Golf and Min's families, and the Thai social media world, began to question if, had the victims had been white US citizens, the rescue mission would have proceeded any differently. Were they mistreated because of their race? Or were the conditions truly unsafe for a rescue?

UNDER PRESSURE

The families had been waiting for over a month when the bodies of Golf and Min were recovered from the rapid waters of Kings River on Sept 1. The bodies of the friends were taken to Pimarn Mortuary in Los Angeles for a religious ceremony, which included the cremation of the bodies.

The family was still reeling over how countless pleas for a swift rescue mission seemed to have gone ignored. Ekkachai Taidecha, a contractor and uncle of Golf, told Spectrum that he felt his nephew got treated unfairly. He couldn't bear to wait while nothing was done to advance the rescue mission.

"I waited for two weeks before I heard that local rescue officers were going to launch the first mission on August 7," Mr Ekkachai explained.

"But then they cancelled it. The second time they scheduled another mission, it was also cancelled. I didn't understand why they couldn't do anything.

"I knew the water was rough but they could have at least tried to fly a drone over to check and see if the bodies were still there."

"I began to think that this response had to do with racial discrimination. Were they not helping my nephew and his friend because they were Asian? I know racism is one of the most serious problems in America. I only hoped this wasn't the case."

After Mr Ekkachai realised American officials were taking their time with the mission, he decided to turn up the pressure himself. He contacted a local rescue team and took them to the US embassy in Bangkok to protest with him.

He wrote a long statement for the US ambassador, requesting he put added pressure on US officials. However, no follow-up came of the statement. He then told the media that if the US officials didn't do anything, he would take the Bangkok rescue team to Kings Canyon and cover the expenses of the mission himself.

Mr Ekkachai also went to Parliament House and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the hope of meeting Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to raise his concerns.

He never received any response from the US embassy or government officials in Thailand, but he didn't give up. He kept issuing statements, producing one after another. He issued at least eight letters to a slew of officials, expressing how disappointed he was with the response to his nephew's accident.

Finally, officials in California issued a statement explaining why the rescue mission had yet to launch and what they planned to do. Although the exact time frame of the mission was not determined, they explained that the slow reaction had nothing to do with the victims' race. The rescue team had protocols to follow, they said, and their main concern was the ultimate safety of the mission.

MISSION (IM)POSSIBLE

Thousands of people have followed the rescue mission on social media, with many reacting angrily to the slow response of the rescue team to the car crash.

Spectrum contacted Sura Jaidwatee, an in-flight medical director, surgeon and doctor. Dr Sura, who has trained in several countries, has expertise in rescue and helicopter emergency missions.

Based on his assessment, he said that the local officials' delayed rescue mission had nothing to do with racial discrimination but much to do with safety issues.

"For us rescue teams, there are two things we have to know before launching any rescue mission -- the safety of navigating the scene and the vital signs of the victims," said Dr Sura. "If either of these two are missing, rescue missions won't be launched as we can't risk the lives of the rescue team to help the victims if they are no longer alive.

"If the victim is still alive and we find that the scene is not safe enough, the rescue team will wait until the risk is not as high and they will try to use any resources they have to rescue that victim."

Dr Sura was not involved in the rescue team for Golf and Min, nor does he know anybody from that team. However, he says from experience that had the same incident taken place in Thailand or elsewhere in the world, the protocol would be the same.

"Thai people are too worried about the racial issues and the family of these two Thai students were being very sensitive, which is understandable," he said. "If I were them, I would react the same way.

"But I can guarantee from my experience that the delay of the rescue mission was purely due to safety issues."

WHY THE WAIT?

Since he heard of the Thai students' accident, Dr Sura has been monitoring the water flow of the Kings River. The river consists of melted ice from the mountains in the area, meaning the flow varies depending on the season.

When the ice melts following winter, the stream turns into a swift water river with lowered temperatures. When the rental car was first found at the bottom of the gorge, the water flow was measured to be 1,700 cubic feet per second (cfs), raising a red flag for the rescue team.

"If the water flow is higher than 400 cfs, the rescue team can't really do anything to help," Dr Sura explained.

"The water temperature was around 10 degrees Celsius [when Golf and Min's car was found]. This is why the rescue mission took so long before it launched. As I said, the rescue team must wait to make sure that the scene is safe first before they can launch any mission.

"A healthy person would pass out within 30 to 60 minutes of getting into water with a temperature of 10 degrees Celsius or less. Then within three hours, they would die.

"But in this case the car plunged from the top of the cliff down to the bottom of the gorge from a height of approximately 150 metres, which is roughly equal to the height of a 50-storey building. Technically speaking, they would have got injuries from the fall even with the air bags activated in the car."

Considering the height the car fell from and the water temperature, Dr Sura says that the chance of Golf and Min would make it out alive after the accident was very slim. He further explained that the real problem was not the difficulty of getting to the bottom of the gorge, but how to lift the car up from the gorge at that height.

"The river is situated at the bottom of the canyon and the wind in the canyon itself is unpredictable," said Dr Sura. "No matter what the wind is like above the canyon, it's a completely different situation in the canyon.

"The strong wind in the canyon would have made it difficult to launch a helicopter rescue and the downwash wind created by the helicopter would have added even more difficulty to the mission. The helicopter could be blown by the heavy wind in the canyon and no one would survive that crash."

After working in his field for over 10 years, Dr Sura has built a large network of rescue teams in different areas. One rescue team member he worked with mentioned he had previously done training at Kings River.

He recalled, when flying over the gorge, that he could see at least 10 cars lying in the river. Given the difficulty of the terrain, many vehicles that have perished there are simply left in the river without ever being extracted.

"One thing I want to emphasise is that safety issues come first for rescue people like us," said Dr Sura. "No matter what happens, everyone must ensure that the scene is safe enough before launching any rescue mission."

BROUGHT TO A CLOSE

Search-and-rescue crews from the Fresno County Sheriff's Office finally pulled the rental sedan to the riverbank on Sept 1, then retrieved the bodies of Golf and Min from the car, according to Tony Botti, a spokesman for the sheriff's office.

The bodies were flown in a California Highway Patrol helicopter to a nearby roadside for transfer to the Fresno County Coroner's Office. Family members of Golf and Min were standing by that day during the recovery effort. The bodies were sent for autopsy and the DNA test results revealed a match with the parents.

Ms Supin thanked the media in California, the Thai community in Los Angeles and Thai people at home who supported her over the course of these past few weeks.

"As a heartbroken mother, it had been the most difficult 38 days of my life," Ms Supin wrote in a long letter of thanks to those involved in the rescue. "My son and Min had their whole lives ahead of them. I raised my son to be a good person and Min's parents also did the same. But today I lost my son forever.

"I can't thank everyone enough for the physical and mental support throughout the whole time I was here in the US. Even though I can't have my son back, I at least know now he is in a better place."

Mr Ekkachai travelled to the US to attend his nephew's funeral at Pimarn Mortuary in Los Angeles. Both Golf and Min will be cremated in the US. Min's ashes will be brought back to scatter in Thailand, while Ms Supin decided to scatter Golf's ashes in the US.

"I would like to thank everyone who was involved with this rescue mission, especially the Thai consulate in Los Angeles who offered their help with every step since my sister arrived in the US. I would like to say that the reason that I react a lot on media is not that I want to be popular or anything. I only did it to put pressure on local officials in America," Mr Ekkachai explained.

"I still question if this is a double-standard practice for different races. I will bring this question to ask officials in Fresno, California. I need a good explanation on the slow process of this rescue mission." 

to the rescue: The rescue mission gets under way on Sept 1 after poor weather and strong river currents delayed the recovery for over a month. The rescue team was widely criticised for the delay. Photos: Royal Thai Consulate-General Los Angeles

fallen victims: The bodies of Pakkapol Chairattanasongporn, 28, and Thiwadee Saengsuriyarit, 24, were retrieved on Sept 1, over a month after their car plunged into Kings River's rapids on July 26. Photo: Royal Thai Consulate-General Los Angeles

up in the air: An air rescue team attends to an accident, above. Sura Jaidwatee, a doctor trained to treat patients in critical condition on air transport, below. Photos: Supplied

on the pulse: Sura Jaidwatee, a doctor and surgeon with expertise in rescue and helicopter emergency missions.

plea for help: Ekkachai Taidecha, Golf's uncle, went to the US embassy to pressure officials to launch the rescue mission for his nephew. Photo: SUPPLIED

joined in prayer: People attend a religious ceremony in Fresno County after a recovery team retrieved the bodies of the Thai students on Sept 1.

Back to top