Thursday, December 07, 2006

A depressing story... James Kim, RIP

This story really choked me up, and I was really saddened listening to the press conference today when they found his body. Maybe it's because he's the same age, maybe because he's a techie, maybe it's because I'm a father with a young child too and can imagine myself in that situation -- it's just heartbreaking. One thing that happens when you following such tragic stories closely is you get emotionally invested in the outcome.

If you haven't heard the story, I will recap it, (most of it from memory, so I apologize for mistakes) in part because it's cathartic to write about it, rather than cut-and-paste other sources.

James Kim, his wife, and 2 young girls (one an infant) were traveling South in Oregon, on I-5. They were headed towards Gold Beach and missed their HWY 42 exit. Using either maps or GPS printouts, they incorrectly reasoned that they could take NF-23/Bear Camp Road which online maps and in GPS mapping software looks like a reasonable road, but it is essentially impassable in winter. In California and Nevada, they close impassable roads in winter, but apparently not in Oregon and *many* people have gotten stuck on Bear Camp Road. (The problem is, online mapping, and many non-local maps won't have hazard information and the forest service roads are displayed graphically as if they were ordinary roads.)

Anyway, Bear Camp eventually narrows and gets hilly, and then forks, and ironically, the fork off of NF-23 to the right looks like a "bigger" road than NF-23 on maps and on Google. They drove down this road for 15 miles, below the snow level, and apparently waited over night. Unfortunately, the snow level moved down, and they found themselves stuck. Now they are 15 miles down a logging road that spurs off a road (Bear Camp) that locals won't dare travel in winter anyway. Chances of random bypasser finding them, or flagging down someone? Zero.

They did the right thing, rationed supplies, used the car for shelter, selectively used the heater, burned their tires, collected berries, drank melted snow water. They lasted for 7 days, saving snacks and baby food they had for the kids. Kati, James's wife breastfed both the kids. Then the father, James, could wait no longer and decided to try and hike out for help. Needless to say, he did not have winter gear (jeans, tennis shoes, no hat!) and was faminished/weakened from 7 days of near fasting. He promised to return in 4 hours. He left that morning at 7:40am, and never returned.

Back in civilization, searchers were trying to narrow down a huge search area of hundreds to thousands of square miles, and combed major routes they could have taken. Two employees at Edge Wireless took a chance and looked at cell tower logs, and they found a record that the Kim's phone had received an SMS the day after they had gone missing. Getting ANY signal through in those canyons is tough, and only a single "ping" from the phone was registered with a nearby tower. Working on this information, the Edge Wireless guys wrote a computer program to model/predict which areas of the canyons could have possibly received a signal from the tower, narrowing the search radius significantly.

Meanwhile, the family hired 3 private helicopters to aid in the search effort. One of the pilots who frequently flies over that area near where the cell ping was discovered is aware of the infamous Bear Camp Road and how easy it is for people to get lost on it, so he started there on a hunch.

2 days later, James Kim's footprints were spotted by that helicopter, leading to the rescue of Kati and the two girls. But where was James? He was gone for 2 days now, in harsh weather 20-30 deg F overnight, with not much winter protection? Trackers were brought in, a massive search and rescue effort started for James, as Kati and James's family held out hope that James would be found in time.

Based on footprints, James had walked back down the road they had driven for about 3 miles, and then, for an unknown reason, left the road and walked down into Big Windy Creek for another 5 miles -- let me emphasis, 5 miles through a hazardous canyon of snow, steep walls, felled timber everywhere. Perhaps he was following common "rules of thumb" about following rivers to find civilization, perhaps he encountered a bear, or heard/saw something and thought there was people living down the ravine. In any case, that turned out to be a fatal mistake.

Trackers were hot on his trail however, and found clothing he had apparently dropped to signify his path. Although, it is also common for people in late stages of hypothermia to remove clothing, the fact that he dropped clothing first near where he left the road, and later after he crossed the water, seems to suggest the first drop was a marker, and the second drop, was because his clothes were wet.

Today, around 12pm, listening to the radio, they interrupted with a live conference from Oregon. My gut told me the sad truth before I heard it, and the solemn tone of the Sherriff reinforced that -- "The body of James Kim has been found..." 4 days, in sub freezing weather, in unbelievably harsh terrain, after a week of prior fasting, without proper winter clothing, what were the odds? I was hoping to hear that James had got lucky and found a cave for shelter, built a fire (he took 2 lighters), and ate berries, but it always was a shot in the dark.

Afterwards, I used Google Earth to fly through the creek he had been hiking through. It had high cliffs, steep walls, but eventually, James would have hit the Rogue River and perhaps made it to Black Bar Lodge, only 1 mile down from where he was found. In fact, from where they found his body, you can stand there in Google Earth and see the river, and he certainly could have heard it as well. The lodge would have been closed, but may have offered shelter, a fireplace, or provisions. If he had boots, a hat, dry clothes, and some extra food, perhaps he would have made it. We don't exactly know when he succumbed to the cold until the autopsy, but it's of little consolation and will only spur more thoughts of "if only they had did X 1 day sooner...etc" Endless whatifs, and recriminations that people go through when grieving loss.

The horrific thought that goes through my mind is perhaps the belief that James did not hear any helicopters or know that his family had been rescued, that he had died believing that his wife and two girls will have died, and perhaps blaming himself.

What James didn't know, but which many now believe given the testimony of the helicopter pilot who first found the Kim family, is that James's footprints left a long track in the snow which the copter first picked up on and followed it to Kati who was waving an umbrella.

James set out on a mission which he had to have known was risking death, because after spending 7 days in the car, he was willing to do anything to try and save his family.

And perhaps, in some small way, he did.


p.s. There is a band of people trolling many Kim-story threads on the internet, whom I will call the Armchair Survivalists. People who in post after post find ways to blame and berate the Kims for their predicament. "It's their own fault" because they didn't have survivalist provisions in the car, took roads "known by locals to be impassable", didn't have satellite phones or GPS, didn't stay in the car, and on and on. It's true, they weren't prepared for survival in the elements, just like 95% of people in the Bay Area don't have proper earthquake provisions, just like many people don't react correctly to hurricanes, tsunamis, and other disasters. They made mistakes, because unfortunately, that's what many people do. Do the Armchair Survivalists who brag about preparation have all their bases covered for every conceivable problem? If their house burns down and you find they didn't change the smoke detector batteries, didn't have fire extinguishers, or second-floor escape ladders, do we get to say "they deserved it" upon finding their dead children? Do they drive cars with the highest safety rating, and never take risks driving? It's all too easy to take a holier than thou attitude when you weren't there.

I do hope that the story of the Kims teaches people to be more wary of driving in back country/mountains, to be better prepared for emergencies, to know what to do in case you are lost and stuck. I also hope that roads which are impassable in Oregon are closed. I would also hope that GPS mapping software and databases take seasonable road conditions into account when they calculate roads as well as warning people of poorly maintained roads.

But I see no benefit in trying to blame the Kims. I only wish the Kim family well, and hope that perhaps the Kim children grow up atleast holding on to the memory of their father as their hero.