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Report: Confusion marred search

James Kim's widow describes their ordeal in a sheriff's document.

January 19, 2007|Sam Howe Verhovek | Times Staff Writer

SEATTLE — Kati and James Kim ripped the visor mirror out of their car and tried directing reflected light at airplanes flying over them. They shouted and struggled in vain to relight a fire, in the rain, when a helicopter passed overhead.

They hoped that somehow, someone would respond to the note they had written with a crayon and stuck in a zip-lock bag to a gate on a federal wilderness road in southern Oregon: "Low on Gas, Low on Food, 2 Babies."

When none of that worked, Kati Kim told investigators in a report issued Thursday, her husband left to seek help, believing, she said, that there was a town with amenities only about four miles away. He had barely eaten for the past week, she said, "saving the food for the babies."

The plan was for James to cut strips of clothing and tie them to trees so he could mark his way back to their car. He was to turn around at 1 p.m. on that day -- Saturday, Dec. 2 -- and come back if he didn't find the town. He didn't return.

On Sunday, a full week into the San Francisco family's ordeal, Kati Kim picked up her two daughters -- Penelope, 4, and Sabine, 7 months.

"She strapped them on her body and walked for about two and a half hours before she returned," said the report, written by Klamath County Sheriff Tim Evinger for the Oregon State Sheriffs' Assn. and sent to Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski. "She was too weak. Kati again heard a helicopter on this day."

Finally, on Monday, Kati heard another helicopter in the area and started signaling with the mirror. The helicopter came closer and started circling, she told Evinger. She put down the mirror and started waving a pink umbrella.

Almost immediately, she recalled, two more helicopters "swooped" in and started dropping food. She started feeding the girls chocolate. The girls were thirsty and the helicopter crews "started dropping Gatorade bottles but they kept exploding open."

Within 10 minutes, one of the helicopters landed nearby "and loaded her and the girls for their ride to safety. It was then she learned that they had not found James."

Though Kati and the girls survived, James Kim, 35, an Internet journalist, was found dead two days later.

The 150-page report, ordered by Kulongoski in the wake of international attention directed on the tragedy, concluded that the search for the family had been marred by "frequent confusion" over just who was in charge. The report provides details of factors leading to that confusion: the number of governmental bodies involved in the search, personality conflicts between officials, sensitivities about comparative ranks, and one particularly inexperienced search official.

In addition, it states, vital information from cellphone records might have helped searchers locate the family a day earlier.

But the report did not conclude whether the death would have been prevented if these defects in the search process had not occurred.

The family, headed from Portland to a resort along the southern Oregon coast, had missed their turnoff for a state highway and decided to take a Forest Service road that maps show as an alternate route.

Kati Kim described how they burned the car's tires, both for warmth and in the hopes that the smoke would be discovered.

"The smoke was black," the report said, summarizing Kim's account, "but the trees were so tall that the smoke seemed to dissipate before it got above the timber."

Later on, though, Kim said she was optimistic that the smoke was rising above the trees and might attract the attention of forest rangers:

"If they won't come save us," Kati Kim said she hoped, "maybe they will come save their forest."

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sam.verhovek@latimes.com

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