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Monks' Pilgrimage Ends in Tragedy

Accident: Six Buddhists from Thailand and one from North Hollywood temple are killed when van flips in San Joaquin Valley. Seven others are injured.


FRESNO — The last leg of a Buddhist pilgrimage to America turned tragic when a ferocious windstorm toppled a van full of monks in rural San Joaquin Valley, killing seven of them and injuring seven others.

At a Fresno hospital, a dozen monks in orange robes and sandals stood dazed in the hallway Tuesday afternoon, waiting for news of one monk who went in for his second surgery.

Many did not know that seven of their brethren--six pilgrims from Thailand and one monk from North Hollywood--had died Monday night.

"I passed this big rig and we were fine," said Phramaha Wichanaow Chamsawas, the monk who was driving the van from the Bay Area en route to a North Hollywood temple. "Then a big wind came from nowhere. Dust. Very strong wind.

"I lost control and our van flipped. I don't know how many times."

Chamsawas said he was knocked unconscious and awoke Tuesday at University Medical Center in Fresno.

"How are the others?" he asked a Thai translator repeatedly.

When told they had died, he began to weep.

"They were my friends and my teachers," he said.

The crash occurred at 8:15 p.m. Monday on Interstate 5, just west of the farm town of Mendota. The group, 12 monks and two student monks, were packed tight in a Dodge Ram van as a dust storm unusual for this time of year kicked up.

"They were thrown all over the place out here," said California Highway Patrol Sgt. Ted Eichman.

The sudden windstorm also caused a major accident on California 99 near Fresno and spread two brush fires in the Sierra foothills Monday evening.

The accident killed six of the visiting monks and one monk from the Wat Thai Buddhist Temple in North Hollywood. Seven others were injured, including two monks from North Hollywood.

The Thai group--described as Buddhist leaders from temples nationwide--had arrived in the United States on May 5. They first visited the North Hollywood temple then spent four days in New York, visiting a temple there. They returned to North Hollywood before heading to the Bay Area early Sunday.

Petuck Maykin, who does volunteer work at the Wat Buddhanusorn Temple in Fremont, south of Oakland, said the group came to discuss the grand opening of that temple and the dedication of its new building, which will include a ceremonial gathering of 150 to 200 monks.

The group left for Southern California after 5 p.m. Monday, he said.

The Thai monks had been scheduled to return to Thailand today.

In North Hollywood, monks prepared Tuesday to hold services for the dead and injured as they sent a small group to Fresno to assist the survivors.

"This situation is very sad. Too much sad," said the Venerable Supharp Sikkhasabho. "It's like we lost a part of our lives."

On Tuesday, monks in North Hollywood tried for hours to piece together information and released a list of the dead. They were identified as Phrakhru Nonthawaranuwat, Phrakhru Sukhumthammawong, Phrakhru Kasemjariyaphirom, Phrakhru Wijitnawakam, Phrakhru Sangkharakjaroon and Phra Kluen Khakkharo--all of Thailand--and Amorn Banlangkul, 33, of North Hollywood.

One of the most seriously injured, the Venerable Sirinontakun Chaiharn, was remembered by those in North Hollywood as an expert woodcarver who helped design the Wat Thai Temple in the 1970s. He lived at the temple for four years from 1974-78 and returned to Southern California every year.

He did woodcutting and gold leaf designs on the roof of the temple.

"He has a lot of friends here and a lot of fellowship," Sikkhasabho said. "He's well-known."

The other crash survivors were Phrakhru Nonthasamwisit Kwanmuang, Phrakhru Nonthaweeraporn, Phrakhru Prasitrattanakhun, Phrakhru Sangkharakjaran, Chamsawas the driver and Natthaporn Rochanachaiy, of North Hollywood.

Two were listed in serious but stable condition, one in critical condition, and four were treated and released.

Dr. Chin Savanapridi, a Thai medical doctor who acted as a liaison between the monks and the hospital staff, said the crash left the survivors confused and dazed. "They don't know what to do," he said.

Late Tuesday, more than two dozen people gathered at the Wat Thai Temple for a prayer service honoring the dead monks. At the base of a 20-foot-high statue of Buddha, members left offerings including spring water, bananas, apples and eggs.

Eight monks led members in a series of prayers. Candles and incense were lit and an easel was set up bearing names of the crash victims.

More ceremonies are planned once the bodies are returned to Los Angeles.

"There is a saying in Buddhism that people are born, get old, get sick and die," said Sutat Pongyuan, 48, a temple member. "We are taught not to be sad. It is part of life."

Arax reported from Fresno and Shuster reported from the San Fernando Valley. Also contributing was Times staff writer Andrew Blankstein in the San Fernando Valley.

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