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City mourns father who died trying to save family

At James and Kati Kim's stores in San Francisco and Noe Valley, friends and strangers come to pay their respects and reflect on his sacrifice.

December 09, 2006|Lee Romney | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — This city grieved Friday for the energetic young father who lost his life in the southwest Oregon mountains, trying to save his snowbound family.

Some knew him. Others did not. But the draw was strong to Noe Valley, the neighborhood where James and Kati Kim lived with their two small children and ran a whimsical boutique.

Flowers and candles spilled from the entranceway of the couple's French-style apothecary, just blocks from their home with its bright red garage door.

"As a parent with two kids who has driven those roads, I can relate to the whole struggle -- and the whole dad thing of trying to fix things," said David Wilson, 49, as he stood in the rain to pay his respects before the burgeoning shrine to Kim. "Many people can see themselves making a wrong choice in the same circumstances."

The spontaneous memorial to the senior CNET editor had been growing since news broke Wednesday that James Kim's quest had ended in death, his body floating in a creek just a mile as the crow flies from where Kati and the girls, 4-year-old Penelope and 7-month-old Sabine, were rescued two days earlier.

There were teddy bears, wreaths, even an artful wrought-iron basket filled with tiny paper umbrellas.

A fifth-grade class from a Christian school in Antioch, 45 miles away, left a card. "I am sorry for your lost," one boy wrote. "I wouldn't have been so brave to sacrifice my life," wrote another.

Mourners also left flowers at the Kims' other business, a clothing boutique in San Francisco's Haight district.

But the largest outpouring of grief was in the village-like community of Noe Valley, where neighbors and merchants stopped by in a steady stream to stand quietly or drop another rose or carnation on the heap.

"There was a special kindness about him," said Holly Shinoff, 51, who owns the building in which the Kims' store is located and lives above it. "Either he had the baby in his arms or Penelope on his shoulders," she said as she sheltered the candles and cards from an intensifying rainstorm. "He was a hands-on father all the way."

Kim, 35, embarked on the rescue mission seven days after he and Kati took several fateful wrong turns in their station wagon while returning from a Thanksgiving holiday, and wound up stuck. By the time he set off for help, the sparse supplies of baby food and snacks were gone. Kati, 30, survived on snowmelt and breastfed both girls before they were rescued Monday.

Kim believed a town was close by, his wife told authorities, perhaps explaining why he left the road to claw his way down the treacherous terrain of a steep drainage and cross its frigid creek. He traveled about 10 miles in an oval before dying at a point where the canyon walls boxed in Big Windy Creek.

Wednesday, at the cafe down the block from the store that Kati ran with her husband's help, Beatrice Rodriguez said Kim came in nearly every morning at 7:30. He'd call out "Hey, chica!" Rodriguez recalled fondly, then order "lo mismo," or the usual -- a double latte and a cinnamon raisin bagel. "He was working very hard for his wife and kids," she said.

The massive search for Kim -- bolstered by a private effort by his father, chairman of a Woodland Hills aerospace corporation -- was followed intensely by strangers worldwide.

Many, it seems, saw themselves in the tragedy's mirror, and came away with a renewed sense of vulnerability.

"It shows that you don't have to be climbing a major mountain to get involved with wilderness," said Peggy Kibel, 49. "It was such a freak combination of things."

Wilson, the father of two, had a more intimate chill. He had been driving on a nearby highway in the very storm that crippled the Kim family, and had spun out on the slick roadway.

"It just made me think about life, and family," he said, "and how things can change."

leora.romney@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

A father's final trek

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Police said James Kim walked about 10 miles after he left his wife and twochildren in their snowbound car last Saturday to get help. Here's alook at the path he took, according to police accounts:

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1. On 7:45 a.m. Saturday, Kim leaves car and walks 5.14 miles back along the road they drove in on.

2. He leaves the road and descends an embankment toward Big Windy Creek. Leaves a pair of gray pants, which police later find.

3. He walks along creek 2.5 miles and leaves another article of clothing and part of a map.

4. He continues another 2.6 miles. His body is found in the creek on Wednesday.

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Sources: Oregon State Police, ESRI, BLM, TeleAtlas, GlobeXplorer, MDAEarthSat (1999) and Associated Press.

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