Who's to blame for James Kim's death?

It's not the federal government or law enforcement or the people who tried to rescue him from the Oregon wilderness.

By Sarah Keech
Published January 11, 2007 1:19PM (EST)

Just after Thanksgiving of 2006, a young family of four from San Francisco went missing in the rugged mountains of southwestern Oregon. James Kim, his wife, Kati, and their two daughters took a risky journey into the wilderness, and only three of them made it out alive. As most Americans know, 35-year-old technology editor James Kim died of hypothermia after setting out on foot in the snow to seek help.

Some are now calling on authorities to remedy the supposed shortcomings in search and rescue procedure and federal law that were exposed in the effort to rescue the Kims. The most notable and emotionally charged voice is that of James Kim's father.

In an opinion piece in Saturday's Washington Post, Spencer Kim blasted, in turn, the local authorities who conducted the search, the legal barriers to procuring crucial credit card and phone-use information in a timely way, interference from the national media, and -- especially -- the fact that a gate across a road on federal land was left unlocked. If the gate had been properly signed and locked, he argued, his son would never have driven 21 miles down a long, deserted logging road. Several days before Kim's article, Sen. Feinstein, D-Calif., sent a letter to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne complaining about the gate and demanding an investigation.

But, sadly, even if the search and rescue effort had been flawless, the results might not have changed. The disappearance of the Kim family and the untimely death of James Kim is not really about an unlocked gate, nor is it about credit cards or the purported shortcomings of any member of the search parties that tried to rescue the family.

Nearly every winter in the high mountains of the United States brings new stories of travelers who take wrong turns, of skiers who wander off groomed slopes and snowmobilers who run out of gas miles from civilization. In an era of cellphones and GPS, it's hard for those inexperienced in the wild to understand that it is still possible to get well and truly lost. It is still possible to be overwhelmed by the forces of nature, and there is not yet any foolproof remedy for human error and a lack of luck.

Here is what happened to the Kims:

According to an entry in a timeline prepared by law enforcement officials for Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski, the Kim family stopped to eat at a Denny's in Roseburg, Ore., just off Interstate 5, at about 8 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 25. They had called ahead to a motel at Gold Beach on the Oregon coast to ask that a key be left for them, because they would be arriving late. It was raining, and they would have a three-hour, 130-mile drive along Highway 42 up and over the Coast Range mountains before they reached the Pacific Ocean. Instead of reconsidering and stopping for the night along I-5, they set out into the darkness.

The Kim family reportedly missed the exit for Highway 42 just a few miles south of Roseburg. Instead of backtracking, they kept driving south on I-5, and then turned off the highway in search of an alternate route across the Coast Range. Their ultimate goal was something called Bear Camp Road. It hasn't yet been officially reported which map the Kims were using, but the 2006 Rand McNally Road Atlas makes a sharp distinction between Bear Camp and Highway 42. The latter is considered a "principal highway," whereas the route the Kims chose is labeled "other road." Much of it passes directly through the Siskiyou National Forest at altitudes of up to 4,200 feet.

"It's a narrow, winding mountain road with very few pull-offs," said Patty Burel, a spokeswoman for the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. "It's only one lane, so if two cars approach each other, one might have to back up to find a pull-off so the other can pass." Bear Camp Road is known for approximately 40 miles of twists, turns and white-knuckle driving -- even in the summer.

In winter, the Forest Service does not close Bear Camp Road because it is a popular recreation area for hunters, snowmobilers and people seeking Christmas trees. Most winter road use comes from local residents, noted Burel, and those drivers are better prepared for the conditions.

All of that would have been news to the Kims. But they did know that it had begun to snow as they climbed into the mountains, and they might have seen several large yellow signs along their chosen path warning of road closures ahead due to snow.

Ultimately, they came to a fork in the road, where Bear Camp splits into Forest Service Road 23 on the left and a Bureau of Land Management logging road, its entrance unlocked, on the right. A sign on the left-hand fork, the continuation of Bear Camp, points travelers to the coast. The Kims turned right instead onto BLM 34-4-38 and drove 21 miles. Low on gas, they stopped for the night on the logging road. By morning, their Saab station wagon was mired in snow.

The Kims had violated a number of rules that would have been familiar to locals or to experienced backwoodsmen, but perhaps not to them. They had left too late at night, they had left the main road, and they hadn't turned around or tried to back up once it began to snow and their gas tank edged toward empty. More than once they had forged ahead when they should've backtracked to the known world and safety.

Earlier in 2006, the Stiver family of Ashland, Ore., encountered a similar situation. The family of six were headed to the Oregon coast in their motor home in March when they got stuck in the snow on a logging road not far from where the Kims wound up. The Stivers were missing for two weeks before being rescued.

But all six of them were rescued. Much of their good fortune was due to following a cardinal rule of the wilderness, even if they did so inadvertently. They came prepared. The Stivers family was in a 36-foot-long house-on-wheels that was stocked with food and supplies left over from the Y2K scare. The Kims, on the other hand, were reportedly traveling through the Siskiyou with the bare essentials, something experts warn against even in good winter weather. And tire chains are recommended equipment even for those drivers in the Oregon-California border area who stick to I-5.

"Transportation of any kind during the winter, whether you are driving, skiing, snowmobiling, you need to be prepared, especially in the backcountry where help isn't going to be immediately available," related Steve Rollins, a 10-year veteran of Portland (Oregon) Mountain Rescue. He was not involved in the search for the Kim family, but was part of the search and rescue effort for three missing climbers on Mt. Hood late last year. "It's always a good idea to have a survival kit with non-perishable food, water, iodine tablets and extra clothes and blankets."

The Stivers survived, though, because they were lucky even when they broke the rules. Two members of the party, like James Kim, left their vehicle to look for help, generally considered the greater of two evils. Fortunately, they bumped into a Bureau of Land Management official. James Kim wasn't so lucky. His wife and daughters stayed in the Saab. They survived. He did not.

After the flood of media attention and the tragic outcome, it was a natural response on the part of all observers, not just James Kim's loved ones, to wonder how his death could have been prevented. That natural reaction made experienced outdoorsmen and rescue professionals nervous.

Steve Rollins, for one, is worried about unnecessary and unhelpful changes in law and policy.

"There is a need to understand the problem before rushing into legislation," he said. "Sometimes people are compelled to do something just for the sake of doing it, and they don't take the time to consult and find out all the issues.

"If the search and rescue community felt there was a need for legislation, they would be jumping up and down about it."

Sure enough, there has been a flurry of investigations and calls for action. They've come from Sen. Feinstein, the governor of Oregon, and the Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency responsible for the road where the Kims got stuck. The BLM's investigation is expected to be complete by the end of this month.

And just as Rollins feared, there have been specific legislative and policy proposals. In his Washington Post article, James Kim's bereaved father made several of them.

Spencer Kim said it was crucial that federal authorities maintain better oversight over logging roads, and that they need to make sure they are barred and properly signed. "It is crucial that measures be adopted," he wrote. He demanded that laws be changed so that credit card and cellphone records could be made immediately available to the next of kin in emergencies. He urged that the Federal Aviation Administration better enforce an existing rule that restricts media overflights during search-and-rescue operations.

Kim rightly notes that time was lost before credit card and cellphone records were released to searchers, and that it was the hotel and restaurant receipts and the last-known "ping" from the cellphone that, once known to rescuers, led to the rescue of Kati Kim and her daughters.

His proposal for federal roads, however, might be unworkable. Michael Campbell, who handles public affairs for BLM in Oregon and Washington state, noted the sheer volume of roads on BLM land, which accounts for about a quarter of all acreage in Oregon. "There are 24,000 roads, comprising about 14,000 miles. We deal with a wide variety of issues: vandalism, flooding, landslides," Campbell said. "There isn't always one solution to fix everything on such a large area of land."

What is truly troubling, however, is Kim's specific criticism of the work of those who tried to rescue his son. He faults local authorities for "confusion, communication breakdowns and failures of leadership."

"Steps should be taken," wrote Kim, "to ensure that authorities are adequately trained for search-and-rescue operations, have a clear sense of their available resources and fully understand the procedures necessary to conduct an effective, well-coordinated search-and-rescue operation."

Certainly local and state governments as well as the Bureau of Land Management should do their part to protect people who utilize their land. But how much responsibility should they have to shoulder when people choose to travel into remote, unpopulated and unknown terrain -- especially in harsh weather conditions?

The cost of search and rescue efforts can be physically and financially exhausting to remote rural areas. Despite a low population and a modest tax base, rural counties in the Rockies and the Pacific mountain ranges often must expend tens of thousands of dollars finding out-of-towners who have wandered off the grid. The cost of a search can run into six figures -- the unsuccessful hunt for two women in Alaska cost $127,000. Failure, meanwhile, brings with it the additional risk of litigation.

The effort to find the Kim family was one of the largest in the history of Josephine, Curry and Coos counties. Josephine County Undersheriff Brian Anderson addressed the issue himself just after James Kim's body was found: "We're a poor county," he told the Oregonian in December. "The availability of three helicopters is unheard of for us." Indeed, it was the financial resources of James Kim's family that afforded them assets (including several rented private helicopters) that they couldn't summon themselves. Putting a single chopper in the air can cost up to $5,000 an hour.

In a case such as the Kims', the price of search and rescue can be unintentionally increased due to notoriety and media coverage. "There is no question," Chris Brewster, president of the nonprofit United States Lifesaving Association, recently told the Washington Times, "that as attention to an incident increases, potential costs rise as well, because of the pressure brought to bear on agencies overseeing the rescue."

A few states have taken measures to help small jurisdictions pay for the kinds of exhaustive searches that are now expected. They have passed laws that allow governments to ask for reimbursement in some search and rescue situations. One of them is Oregon. Another is Colorado, which also sells the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Search and Rescue Card in order to offset the cost of search and rescue missions. One county in Utah sends bills to rescued mountain bikers, and ski areas in Idaho are allowed to ask lost skiers for reimbursement. In general, however, such measures are only invoked in extreme cases, like hoaxes.

James Kim was a hero for his efforts to save his family, and his father's proposal about credit card and cellphone information merits debate. But any criticisms, no matter their source, of the search and rescue professionals and volunteers of southwestern Oregon seem harsh. And it's also true that while Spencer Kim's recommendations might save someone like his son, the circumstances of each wilderness rescue case are very specific. His proposals might not save the next traveler. Technology, whether in the form of GPS, cellphones or even helicopters, can't save everyone. In the end it comes down to whether people are prepared for the wilderness, whether they respect it or even believe that such a thing still exists. There is no balm for human error in legislation, or in criticizing the people who worked doggedly for days to save James Kim's life.

Sarah Keech

Sarah Keech is a freelance writer living in Portland, Oregon.

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