FRESNO, Calif. -- A white Ford Focus linked to a San Diego couple who went missing during a visit to Sequoia National Park is believed to be submerged in the swollen Kings River, just 40 yards away from where another car has been stuck since late July, according to Fresno County sheriff's officials.
Officials believe Yinan Wang, 31, and his wife, 30-year-old Jie Song, likely died after their car crashed off a winding stretch of Highway 180 into the river, though their bodies have not been found, Fresno County sheriff's spokesman Tony Botti said.
"It's going to be a long process," Botti said of recovery crews being able to reach the car. "It could very well be weeks."
Botti said search-and-rescue crews spotted a large white object underneath the water that they believe is the 2012 Ford Focus that Wang and Song took on their trip. The Focus is about 40 yards downstream from a red sedan that's lodged on a rock in the middle of the river. Officials believe Wang and Song are likely inside the Focus, and that inside the red car are the bodies of two Thai exchange students who were attending the University of South Florida.
It's believed to be coincidental that both cars crashed in the same area within weeks of each other, Botti said. He described the road in that area as very winding above "one of the largest canyons in the country."
"It's steep and rocky with Class V rapids," Botti said. "It's very difficult to get in there with any sort of rescue crews."
The red car crashed through a guardrail, Botti said. Investigators believe Wang and Song's Focus left the roadway about 30 to 50 feet away from that spot, in an area without a guardrail, and crashed through trees and brush before plummeting into the canyon.
The San Diego couple was last seen Aug. 6, after taking a tour of Crystal Caves in Sequoia National Park. They were supposed to then drive to Fresno, stay the night in a hotel, continue to Yosemite National Park the next day and return to San Diego on Aug. 9. But there's no indication they made it to Fresno or any of their other planned destinations.
Fresno County sheriff's deputies and park rangers at Sequoia National Park both took missing persons reports for Wang and Song on Friday, and it was at that point a bizarre clue about their whereabouts from earlier in the week came into focus.
On Aug. 8, a Fresno County search-and-rescue deputy discovered the San Diego couple's detached license plate while watching a news story about the red car, which crashed into the river July 26.
"The deputy knew (the license plate) did not belong to the red car in the river," Botti said. "The search-and-rescue member performed a records check on the plate to see if the vehicle had been reported missing, stolen or involved in an accident. Results showed it belonged to a 2012 Ford Focus and no police reports had been filed in relation to the car."
The sheriff's office passed along its information about the license plate to the California Highway Patrol, but its significance wasn't realized until three days later when Wang and Song were reported missing by family members.
After putting together those pieces of information, the sheriff's office and CHP launched an aerial search for the San Diego couple on Saturday "to see if there are any signs of a white car" in the canyon area where the red car was still stuck in the river, Botti said.
On Sunday, officials said they found some vehicle parts in the river, but they were hesitant to jump to conclusions. But Tuesday, Botti said it's very likely the large, submerged white object is Wang and Song's car.
"It appears to be parts of the car," he said. "There were some smaller parts that went down the hillside and larger parts in the river."
Botti said because the river is so rough in that area, it could be weeks until rescuers are able to recover both vehicles and the four bodies that are believed to be trapped inside.