STRANDED FATHER'S HEROIC LAST HOURS
He crawled, climbed through 5-mile canyon seeking help for family
Thursday, December 7, 2006
(12-07) 04:00 PST Grants Pass, Ore. -- James Kim put himself through a desperate ordeal, climbing down a ravine over boulders and logs, through nearly impenetrable brush, and in and out of an icy creek, in what one rescue leader called a "superhuman" effort to save his family.
In the end, his exhausting trek took him in a big, oval-shaped loop to within half a mile of where Big Windy Creek empties out into the Rogue River in the southern Oregon mountains.
It was there, surrounded by towering cliffs, that the body of the missing San Francisco man was spotted just after noon Wednesday. He was found floating in the middle of Big Windy Creek, 11 days after his family's car became stuck in the snow on a side road and four days after he ventured off to look for help.
The death of Kim, 35, came as a blow to rescue workers, two of whom broke down in tears while talking about his heroics.
"We are devastated," said Josephine County Undersheriff Brian Anderson, his eyes moist and his voice cracking. "I'm crushed."
In the end, Kim's circuitous hike took him to within a mile as the crow flies from the spot where he had left his stranded family in their car. Rescuers said that if he had continued down the road in the direction he was driving when the car became stuck on Nov. 25, he would have reached a lodge and almost certain safety.
About 100 rescuers from seven counties, two federal agencies and the Oregon State Police had searched for Kim since his wife, Kati, and two young daughters were found alive Monday with the car. His family had rented three helicopters and arranged for care packages to be dropped in Big Windy Creek canyon, where searchers had focused their efforts after finding his tracks and articles of clothing and a torn-up map that Kim apparently was leaving as a trail.
Even a satellite was moved in space so it could be used in the search.
Kim died after picking his way nearly to the end of the steep, 5-mile canyon in the Siskiyou National Forest west of Grants Pass. Wearing tennis shoes, a jacket and sweater, he had left his family on Saturday, following a logging road back the way the family had come, winding around a ridge, first south, then west.
After walking 3 to 5 miles along the road, he turned east into the ravine, apparently to follow the creek in the hope that it would lead down to homes.
That used to be a recommended survival tactic, but it has fallen out of favor because people who try it usually become more susceptible to hypothermia.
Trackers followed Kim's footprints through dense forest and over slippery boulders from one side of the creek to the other.
"I can only describe him as an extremely motivated individual," said Joe Hyatt of the local Swift Water Rescue Team, which tracked him along the creekbed. "There were areas where the only option for us to pass through was to enter the water and physically swim."
Kim was almost certainly dripping wet. It's not known whether he realized he was approaching the Rogue River, but authorities said he wouldn't have found civilization even had he made it to where the creek empties out.
"Based on what the searchers were describing, the terrain they were working in, it seems superhuman to me,'' Anderson said of Kim's effort.
A helicopter crew spotted Kim's body in the creek at a place where the terrain becomes impassable on both sides because two sheer cliffs line the water.
"He was probably too weak to get back up out of there," Jackson County Sheriff Mike Winters said.
Had Kim known to continue down the logging road from where the car stopped, he soon would have come to a fishing and rafting resort known as Black Bar Lodge. It was vacant for the winter, but rescuers checked it several times, Winters said.
"I admire his effort, I truly do," Winters said. "He has a lot of intestinal fortitude. He comes from the city without a lot of outdoors experience, and he was thinking on his feet, he was very meticulous. ... He had a strong will to survive."
Kim's body was taken to the Oregon State Police Crime Lab, where a medical examiner will determine the cause and time of death. Autopsy results could be released as soon as today.
Earlier Wednesday, authorities said Kim had been leaving clothing and bits of maps in the canyon, apparently as a trail for searchers to track.
"He was motivated -- I mean, we were having difficulty in there," Anderson said. "That was what has been so frustrating; we couldn't seem to get in front of him."
The discovery marked the end of a saga that was closely watched in San Francisco, where Kim worked as an editor at the tech news site Cnet, and around the nation.
Kim left his wife and two daughters early Saturday to look for help a week after the family became stranded off Bear Camp Road in the mountains between Grants Pass and Gold Beach. Kati Kim, 30, and daughters Penelope, 4, and 7-month-old Sabine remained with their car, 15 miles from Bear Camp Road, and were spotted and rescued Monday.
Oregon State Police Lt. Gregg Hastings said that "the commitment by those involved in the search for Kati, for the kids and for James has gone nonstop around the clock. This is obviously extremely tough on those who have had an emotional commitment over the last several days here."
Winters said he admired the love and intense commitment Kim's father, Spencer Kim, showed for his son.
"He was there, he was relentless in his support of us, and when he looks you in the eye and says he is depending on you. ..." Winters' voice cracked, and he turned away to hide his tears before choking out, "It's tough."
Spencer Kim paid for 18 care packages that were dropped in the area this week. Each package included clothes, a wool blanket, gloves and other survival items, and each contained a letter from Kim's family.
The Kims left San Francisco on Nov. 18 for a combined vacation and work trip for James Kim. They spent Thanksgiving in Seattle with family, then went to Portland, Ore., where they had brunch with a friend Nov. 25.
The family then left on their way to a stopover in Gold Beach. At 8:30 that night, they ate dinner in the central Oregon town of Roseburg, where authorities say they intended to take state Highway 42 over to the coast.
But they missed the turnoff, consulted a map, and decided to drive the 55 miles down Interstate 5 to Grants Pass. There they turned onto Bear Camp Road, which is lightly traveled even in the summer and often is closed in the winter.
It was stormy, and around the 2,300-foot elevation, about 50 miles from their intended destination, James Kim turned off onto the logging road, apparently by mistake. They were soon winding up the mountains, hopelessly lost, authorities said, and finally became stranded in snow.
The Kims ran the engine of their station wagon to power its heater, and when the gas was gone, they burned the tires. They ate what little food they had, and Kati Kim breast-fed her two daughters.
Kati Kim and her daughters were spotted Monday afternoon by a private helicopter pilot.
Chronicle staff writers Jaxon Van Derbeken and Marisa Lagos contributed to this report. E-mail Peter Fimrite at email@example.com.
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