Some more details of the Kim family’s ordeal from newspaper accounts the last couple of days; and also a few items on the aftermath; for instance, the locals are talking a lot more about how frequently out-of-towners get lost on the complex of roads across the mountains and are talking about putting up some new warning signs or taking other measures.
‘Hypothermia Killed Father, Autopsy Shows‘
AP/Medford Mail Tribune (12/8)
… The snow was so heavy, Kim opened and leaned out a car door trying to see, (Oregon State Pollce Lt. Gregg) Hastings said.
“They got about 15 miles off Bear Camp Road before they decided to stop,” Hastings said.
After a week in which Kati Kim, 30, nursed their two children and the family burned tires for warmth and to signal rescuers, James Kim set out on foot in search of help. Kati Kim told officers it snowed hard for several days, and the family heard the whirr of helicopters at least twice.
Before he hiked away, James Kim lit a fire for his family, Hastings said.
Hastings said James Kim had wanted to find a road to the nearby town of Galice and possibly a motorist, or to get to the Rogue River as a way to the town, Hastings said.
James Kim thought Galice was only 4 miles distant, although it was really 15 miles away, Hastings said.
“James Kim did nothing wrong,” Hastings said. “He was trying to save his family.”
‘Kim likely dead 2 days before body found‘
The Oregonian (12/8)
… Police said the Kims left a Denny’s restaurant in Roseburg about 9 p.m. Nov. 25 for the Tu Tu Tun Lodge near Gold Beach. After missing the exit from Interstate 5 onto Oregon 42, they decided about 10:30 p.m. to take what looked like a direct route on Bear Camp Road.
Bear Camp Road starts at about 900 feet elevation and climbs to 4,000 feet over the top of the Coast Range to Gold Beach. A rough road even in the summer, in the winter it is clogged with snow, but used by hunters, snowmobilers and others seeking outdoor recreation.
As their all-wheel-drive 2005 Saab crept along the narrow track, the Kims found the road signs confusing and noticed that some warned of snow and dangerous winter driving conditions. It was snowing, and they stopped several times to move rocks out of the road.
The couple decided to turn back, but were forced to drive in reverse, with James Kim looking out through an open driver’s door and revving the engine to move through the snow.
Running low on gas and seeking to get to a lower elevation, the couple left Bear Camp Road, turning down a Bureau of Land Management road that normally is closed by a locked gate. Vandals had cut the lock and opened the gate. The Kims drove 15 miles down the road to where it was only raining. At 2 a.m. they stopped for the night.
Searchers pointed out Thursday that the car was just a mile away — via another rugged forest road — from Black Bar Lodge. Although closed for the winter, the lodge was stocked with leftover supplies from the summer, its owner John James, told The Associated Press.
The next day, they were confronted by heavy snow and stayed in the car, occasionally running their engine to use the heater. They continued to do the same over the next two days as snow fell. James Kim read to his children every night.
On Wednesday, the family was out of gas, and started a fire using magazines and driftwood, but the wood was frozen, heavy and hard to gather. The next day, they turned to a spare tire for a fire in the afternoon.
On Friday, they pried the four tires from their car and, by 11 a.m., had stoked a blaze they hoped would attract attention. They also began stowing wood under their car to try to keep it dry. By afternoon, their fire was out. They heard a helicopter — area agencies had begun their search for the family.
Saturday morning, the couple switched gears. In studying a map of Oregon, they estimated the town of Galice was located on a river about four miles east of them. James Kim hoped to get to a road with cars on it or follow a river to the town.
In reality, the Rogue River hamlet was 15 miles away, separated by four other steep creek drainages.
Saturday morning, James Kim built a fire for the family before saying goodbye at 7:45 a.m., with a promise he would return by 1 p.m. if he didn’t find help.
About 9:30 a.m. Kati Kim heard and saw more helicopters. At 1 p.m. her husband had not returned.
James Kim backtracked along the BLM road they had traveled a week earlier. After five miles, the road crosses Big Windy Creek. He climbed down into the drainage, dropping a pair of gray pants one-quarter mile from the road, then continued another quarter mile down to the creek.
He followed the creek east, back in the direction of the family’s car. Two miles later, he dropped several more pieces of clothing and bits of his map.
It was 2.5 more miles down the creek before James came to rest in the water, a half-mile short of where the creek tumbles into the Rogue.
He was found with a backpack and wearing a heavy dark jacket, gray sweater, T-shirt, blue jeans and tennis shoes. He had trekked more than 10 miles on his quest. When he died, he was hardly more than a mile — in a straight line — from his family’s car. …
… Deputy state medical examiner Dr. James Olson thinks Kim probably died two days after he left his wife and two young daughters to find help.
“But that’s only an educated guess, given the conditions and how much exertion he put on his body to get through treacherous conditions,” Olson said. “It’s possible that we’ll never know exactly when he died.”
Olson said Kim’s body was “soft and flaccid” when searchers found him face up in 3 feet of water at 12:03 p.m. Wednesday. After the body was brought out of Big Windy Creek, it never went into rigor mortis — the stiffening that occurs within eight hours of death, Olson said. Rigor mortis dissipates after about 24 hours.
Olson said it’s extremely likely that rigor had set in and disappeared already. …
Rescue team ‘so close‘
San Jose Mercury-News (12/8)
When SWAT team member Grant Forman first heard the enthusiastic voice on the radio announcing that James Kim was found after being missing for five days in the freezing Oregon mountains — “We need someone to get there now!” — Forman was sure the young husband and father was still alive.
He quickly harnessed up, hooked himself to the end of a 250-foot rope attached to a rescue chopper and dangled in midair over the rugged terrain for about seven minutes. Then, he reached a point just above Big Windy Creek’s narrow canyon.
All the way, flying through the chilling fog, Forman couldn’t stop thinking about Kim’s tenacity — how he had survived for nearly a week in his stranded station wagon with his wife and two young daughters with nothing to eat but baby food, jelly and berries they gathered; how he spent several days trudging 10 miles through unforgiving terrain to look for help.
“I wanted what every person watching the news wanted — to see him walk out or to help him and send him back to his family,” Forman, a Jackson County sheriff’s deputy, said Thursday. “People across this nation, this is what they hoped for, a happy ending.”
Instead, as the helicopter lowered Forman and a medic into the canyon, Forman was still 100 yards away, but he could tell Kim’s fate. The 35-year-old San Francisco Web site editor, who had made a wrong turn on his way home after Thanksgiving in Seattle, was floating on his back in a shallow edge of the creek, nestled among slippery river rocks.
For the man who had left a trail of discarded clothing and torn pieces of a map for rescuers to follow, Kim was found still wearing a jacket, a sweater, jeans and tennis shoes, along with a backpack that held his identification.
The dreaded job went to Forman to radio the news.
“Mr. Kim is code 57,” he said.
It would be a recovery, not a rescue.
The results of an autopsy conducted Thursday morning stated the cause of death as exposure and hypothermia. Kim had no physical injuries that would have killed him. The coroner was unable to determine a time of death, said Oregon State Police Lt. Gregg Hastings.
But it appeared to Forman at the time that Kim had been dead less than a day and that Kim had slipped and fallen on the mossy rocks — just as Forman had slipped when trying to reach him.
Whether hypothermia made Kim lose balance, or whether Kim was too weak to recover after he fell, Forman didn’t know.
But he was sure of one thing: “I don’t think he gave up until he died.”
Kim’s resting place was a chilling jungle of downed trees, dense vegetation and wetness, Forman said. Ferns were so tall lining the creek, they towered over Forman’s head.
The creek was 20 feet wide there, rushing swiftly in the middle, but shallow and still at the edge where Kim’s body lie among the slick rocks.
He believes Kim died right where he had fallen.
It was about 2 p.m. Wednesday when Forman reached him. But the sheer rock cliff on one side and the huge boulders and steep hillside on the other shut out the filtered sun, making day seem like evening.
With the medic’s help, Forman placed Kim’s body in the rescue basket and gave the signal to the helicopter. Through the cold, foggy sky they traveled above the Big Windy Creek, another four miles, to a safe landing place.
‘Road signage under review‘
Mail Tribune (12/8)
There but for the lack of snow went Geeno Valdez, who says he would have become a local version of the Kim family tragedy had his ordeal on Bear Camp Road not been in the summer.
Valdez, a retired teacher living in Medford, said road maps and poor signs lured him, like they did the Kims, onto the now infamous route for a trip between Grants Pass and Gold Beach.
Trying to follow signs pointing to Gold Beach, Valdez and his wife got lost several times and spent the night in their car before eventually finding their way home safely.
“It’s misleading that the maps and the signs say that road goes to Gold Beach,” Valdez said Thursday, a day after James Kim’s body was discovered in a creek near where his family’s car was stranded.
“I followed the signs that family did and the same thing happened to me, only it was summer,” Valdez said. “Thank God.”