SAN FRANCISCO — Technology, some lucky text messages and an outdoorsman’s intuition helped locate three members of a family stranded in the Oregon backcountry for nine days.
Searchers rescued Kati Kim, 30, of San Francisco and her daughters Penelope, 4, and Sabine, 7 months, along a remote forest road Monday afternoon. The key to finding them, police said, was a “ping” from one of the family’s cell phones that helped narrow down their location.
According to one of two cell phone engineers who honed in on the Kims, the chance of the split-second signal making it through the rugged mountains was “very slim.”
“It was just a hunch that we could help. And we followed up on the hunch,” said Eric Fuqua, 39, an engineer for Edge Wireless LLC who contacted authorities to offer his services in the search. Edge Wireless provides cell phone coverage in southern Oregon, and is a member of Cingular Wireless’ network.
Fuqua and his co-worker, Noah Pugsley, started digging through computer records of cell phone traffic Saturday and learned that one of the Kims’ cell phones had received two text messages around 1:30 a.m. on Nov. 26, the day after the family was last seen at a restaurant in Roseburg, Ore.
The engineers were able to trace a “ping” from the Kims’ phone when it received the text messages. They located not only the cell tower in Glendale, Ore., from which the messages were relayed, but a specific area west of the town where the phone received them.
With the family’s possible location narrowed down, the pair used computer software to create a map predicting what parts of the mountainous region received any cell phone coverage at all.
Fuqua then relied on his extensive experience traveling the heavily forested back roads as both a fisherman and a technician, he said, to guess the course the family may have taken as they headed from the mountains toward the coast.
The engineers’ sleuthing led searchers to focus on Bear Camp Road.
Found in 'impossible' terrain
The rescued members of the Kim family were found with their snowbound car just off that road, which Fuqua called “impossible” terrain to navigate for anyone with no knowledge of the area.
The complicated network of roads in the area is commonly used by whitewater rafters on the Rogue River or as summer shortcuts to Gold Beach — the Kims’ destination when they went missing. The roads are not plowed in winter.
James Kim, 35, remained the focus of a massive search effort Tuesday, three days after he left the Saab station wagon in search of help.
Searchers were lucky that the Kims received a cell phone signal at all in an area with “very, very sparse coverage,” Fuqua said. “Every now and then, if you go slow enough, you’ll hit our towers for just one second in that one spot,” he said.
Details of the contents of the text messages and who sent them have not been released.
But law enforcement officials said the engineers’ analysis of the messages was the critical breakthrough that searchers needed to ultimately spot three of the Kims by helicopter as Kati Kim waved an umbrella marked “SOS.”
“From what I understand about (Fuqua’s) help in this case, as far as I’m concerned he’s a hero to me,” said Inspector Angela Martin, who led the San Francisco police’s investigation into the Kim’s disappearance.
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