For rescue workers searching desperately for James Kim, some of whom camped on the ground at night with his footprints so as not to lose the trail, the news that Kim was found dead Wednesday was a heavy blow.
Kim, his wife, Kati, and their two daughters, Penelope, 4, and Sabine, 7 months, went missing Nov. 25 when they left Portland, Ore., and headed home after a holiday trip. Sometime along the way, they missed a turnoff and got lost. Saturday, James Kim left to find help, heading about two miles down the road into a drainage area called Big Windy Creek.
Kati Kim and the girls were rescued Monday and are OK. But James Kim had been missing for a fourth day when rescuers reached his body at 12:03 p.m. PT Wednesday.
Josephine County Undersheriff Brian Anderson broke down and had to step away as he prepared to relay the news that Kim was dead, leaving the task to Lt. Gregg Hastings of the Oregon State Police.
“You have to understand, we’re treating this like a member of our own family is missing out in the wilderness,” Anderson told NBC News’ Peter Alexander.
Race against hypothermia
Authorities said they were initially heartened by the discovery of items of Kim’s clothing at various places in the woods, hoping they were markers he had left to help search crews. But in the end, they said, Kim may have been shedding his clothes in a paradoxical grasp for relief from hypothermia and frostbite , which often leave their victims feeling overheated.
“After you start getting tired, you start getting cold, you start sweating — those are the types of things that lower your body temperature,” said John Galford, a forest preserve patrol officer in Lake County, Ill. “That’s when you’re going to go down.”
Searchers told NBC News that they located Kim on Tuesday and at one point they were able to make direct contact with him. They explored ways to lower a medic to the area, they said, but it was not immediately clear whether that attempt ultimately failed or was too late to save Kim.
Rescuers frantically tried to work out ways to reach Kim in the impassable snow-jammed area over the next hours, Anderson said, but they couldn’t make it in time.
“Yeah, you do take it personally, and it’s been tough,” Anderson said Wednesday.
Technology, then old-fashioned footwork
Without the use of sophisticated technological tools, search crews might never have found Kim at all, said Alan Boyle, science editor of MSNBC.com.
“It had to do with the cell phone that the Kims were using,” Boyle said. “It was able to broadcast a short blip, and that’s really what gave searchers the initial clue they needed to focus down on this region” where Kim was found Wednesday.
What caused the blip? Kim was receiving a text message, Boyle said. That was all search crews and technicians from Edge Wireless needed to find him.
At that point, as the danger of hypothermia worsened, it became a “nitty-gritty search-and-rescue operation where there’s a lot of people on the ground and looking in the air,” Boyle said. “The technology, as important as it is, is not as important as just get the people out to where they think this person is and getting him out alive.”
MSNBC.com’s Alan Boyle; NBC’s Peter Alexander in Merlin, Ore., and Kevin Tibbles in Vernon Hills, Ill.; and KNTV’s Susan Siravo in Grants Pass, Ore., contributed to this report.
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