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Tragedy spurs search review

Oregon is investigating if overlooked tips could have prevented a lost man's death.

January 02, 2007|Sam Howe Verhovek | Times Staff Writer

SEATTLE — Amid reports that poor communication and missed tips might have hampered the search for James Kim and his family in the southern Oregon wilderness, Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski has ordered three state agencies to review the search process, and said he would appoint a task force to improve search-and-rescue efforts.

A state sheriffs' organization also is conducting a review, as are federal agencies in charge of the land where Kim and his family were lost. And the dead man's father recently sent a letter to friends, asking for help in launching an initiative to prevent a similar tragedy from befalling another family.

James Kim, 35, of San Francisco, died of hypothermia last month after setting out for help for his family, which had been stranded on a remote logging road in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest for nearly a week.

Headed for the southern Oregon coast from Portland late on Nov. 25, the family missed the exit off of Interstate 5 for a state highway to their destination. Consulting a road map, they decided to take a U.S. Forest Service route, known as Bear Camp Road, over the Coast Range, according to accounts Kim's wife has given to authorities.

As they gained elevation and rain turned to snow and fog, the family took a 21-mile detour off of Bear Camp Road onto a logging road that dead-ended near the Rogue River.

Kim's wife, Kati, 30, and their two daughters -- Penelope, 4, and Sabine, 7 months -- were found alive Dec. 4 by a private helicopter pilot, acting on a hunch, near the family's car.

But that was two days after James Kim, an Internet journalist, had walked off into the woods to look for help because the family was out of food and fuel, and had even burned the car's tires to generate heat and to send out a distress signal. He died of hypothermia.

The case has been riddled with questions about how a family on such an ordinary-sounding vacation trip could have gone for so long without anyone involved in search efforts finding them.

And while family and friends have not criticized search and law-enforcement officials, the Oregonian, the state's largest newspaper, said in an editorial Dec. 19 that the search was "poorly coordinated and under-rehearsed."

The newspaper said the operation "relied on dozens of small, often-disconnected components," which, if properly managed, "could have helped bring James Kim home alive."

In particular, an investigation by the newspaper found, there may have been a crucial delay in search authorities' response to a Dec. 2 tip from a southern Oregon cellphone engineer, who identified Bear Camp Road as a likely location for the Kims based on two brief "pings" from their cellphone to a transmission tower.

Though the Josephine County sheriff's office and the state police had access to a heat-seeking helicopter, the newspaper said, it did not deploy one in the area until Dec. 4.

A four-wheel-drive truck was dispatched Dec. 3 to travel on Road 34-8-36, the paved federal logging road that the Kims had evidently mistaken for Bear Camp Road the night they got lost, and on which the helicopter pilot found Kati Kim and her daughters the next day.

But the truck turned back because snow accumulation made the road impassable. The Bureau of Land Management normally locks a gate across the road in winter to prevent the sort of detour taken by the Kims, but it had not done so by late November.

Because the Kims were on vacation, no one considered them missing until Nov. 28, when their house-sitter in San Francisco realized that they were overdue for their return home.

Search authorities and volunteer rescue teams quickly searched main possible routes between Roseburg, Ore. -- where they had last been seen, eating a meal at a Denny's restaurant -- and their destination, a lodge in Gold Beach, Ore.

But while they checked Bear Camp Road, which links Grants Pass, Ore., to Gold Beach and is listed on maps as a national scenic byway, no one surveyed Road 34-8-36 until Dec. 4.

There are more than 1,500 miles of logging and recreational roads in the national forest and adjacent Bureau of Land Management area in southwestern Oregon. At least two other stranded motorists have died on the roads in the last 15 years.

In ordering a review involving the Oregon Emergency Management office, the Oregon State Police and the Oregon National Guard, Kulongoski stopped short of saying that the search was mishandled.

But he said in his Dec. 22 announcement: "It is my hope that after we obtain the facts around this search effort, that we can come together -- state and local entities -- to review our respective roles and identify ways to strengthen our coordination, communication and search efforts in the future."

Kulongoski said he hoped to have initial reports and a timeline by Friday. He will then appoint the task force to coordinate state and local efforts.

Klamath County Sheriff Tim Evinger, in charge of the sheriff group's inquiry, said it was not engaged in "finger-pointing" but in finding ways to strengthen search procedures, especially coordination between state and local authorities.

"The big question is, what can we learn from this?" said Evinger, chair of the rescue committee of the Oregon State Sheriffs' Assn. "Who knew what, when, and how did they fold all this into the chain of command? ... How can we keep history from repeating itself?"

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sam.verhovek@latimes.com

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