Search crews deploying sophisticated technological tools worked frantically to rescue a freezing man in the snow-choked mountains of Oregon, only to be devastated Wednesday afternoon by the realization that they were too late.
A rescue crew reached the body of James Kim, 35, of San Francisco shortly after noon PT Wednesday in a drainage area of the Klamath Mountains two days after his wife and two daughters were rescued from their car, which had been stuck on a remote road for more than a week. Kim had set out on foot over the weekend to find help.
Josephine County Undersheriff Brian Anderson broke down and had to step away to compose himself 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.
Discovery at Big Windy Creek
Rescue workers had located Kim some time before they announced that they had reached his body at 12:03 p.m. PT at a drainage area called Big Windy Creek, searchers told NBC News.
Kim, a senior editor for the technology media company CNet Networks Inc.; his wife, Kati; and their two daughters, Penelope, 4, and Sabine, 7 months, went missing Nov. 25 when they left Portland and headed home after a holiday trip to the Pacific Northwest. Sometime along the way, they missed a turnoff and got lost.
They ran the heater in their car until it ran out of gas, and then they burned the tires to stay warm and attract attention. On Saturday, James Kim left to find help, heading about two miles down the road into Big Windy Creek.
Kati Kim and the girls were rescued Monday and are OK.
James Kim's body was discovered Wednesday about a mile from the family’s car — two days after a helicopter hired by the family spotted Kati Kim waving an umbrella and rescued her and the girls.
A helicopter spotted his body about a half mile from where it joins the Rogue River, Josephine Anderson said.
Kim had trekked five miles down the steep canyon and about eight miles in all, but ended up about a mile as the crow flies from the car. “It seems superhuman to me to cover that amount of distance given what he had,” Anderson said.
First technology, then old-fashioned footwork
Without the use of sophisticated technological tools, Kati Kim and the girls might not have been rescued in time, and James Kim might not have been found 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 the Kims were found.
What caused the blip, which was picked up on Nov. 26? The phone was receiving a text message, Boyle said. Edge Wireless records showed that the cell tower relaying the message was in close-by Wolf Creek, helping technicians pinpoint where the phone, at least, was.
Kati Kim and the girls were spotted Monday by searchers in a private helicopter hired by the family. They were released Tuesday from a hospital in Grants Pass. But while his family was safe, James Kim himself was still missing, presumably somewhere nearby.
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 victims feeling overheated.
Kim had been dressed in only blue jeans, a second pair of pants, a heavy jacket and tennis shoes, Anderson said. He wasn’t believed to have even had a hat or gloves with him.
“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 who has tracked dozens of people stranded in the snowy woods of Lake County, Ill. “That’s when you’re going to go down.”
Rescue effort changes tactics
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.”
Rescuers — who numbered more than 100 at times, some of whom camped out at night with Kim’s footprints so they wouldn’t lose the trail — desperately tried to work out ways to reach Kim in the next hours, but the snow-jammed area was virtually impassable.
The weather was clear and cold, with temperatures mainly in the 20s. Anderson said the biggest problem was the steepness of the terrain and the water in the area, where rescuers who were perpetually getting soaked by a stream had to return to their base camp to stave off hypothermia themselves.
“It’s very, very slow going. It’s very slick, and the one thing we don’t want is rescuers get down there, get some type of an injury, and then not be able to get them out,” Jackson County Sheriff Mike Winters said.
In the end, they couldn’t make it in time. Kim’s body was to be taken to Central Point, Ore., for an autopsy.
“Yeah, you do take it personally, and it’s been tough,” Anderson said.
Kim’s employer, CNet, headquartered in San Francisco, remade the front page of its Web site in his memory Wednesday. The Web site documented Kim’s professional passions.
Kim, who grew up in Louisville, Ky., was a senior editor specializing in mp3 and digital audio. He considered digital audio and writing his passions. He wrote more than 400 product reviews covering a broad range of technology, the Web site said.
At CNET headquarters, employees said that strangers stopped by to offer their condolences. A holiday party planned for Wednesday night was canceled; instead, managers were considering making grief counselors available to workers stunned by the news.
By MSNBC.com’s Alex Johnson with 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., and Traci Grant in San Francisco.