James Kim traveled through the snowdrifts and thick undergrowth of the southwest Oregon wilderness determined to find help for his snowbound wife and young daughters.
Clad only in tennis shoes, pants, a sweater and a jacket, he walked down a desolate road Saturday — away from 7-month-old Sabine and 4-year-old Penelope — intent on saving his hungry, freezing family.
He was found dead Wednesday afternoon in a rocky creek bed that authorities could only access via helicopter.
Four days after James left his wife Kati, 30, and their two daughters, the massive round-the-clock search for the 35-year-old ended when a privately hired helicopter spotted his body. Members of a Special Weapons and Tactics team were lowered from the helicopter to confirm his identity.
“That is a very steep area. Our teams couldn’t make it up from the bottom,” said an emotional Brian Anderson, the Josephine County undersheriff. “He was very motivated. We were having difficulty in there. He traveled a long distance.”
Along the way, Anderson said, Kim left a trail of clothes, hoping to mark his path. He also left an SOS note, an “8½-by-11-inch SOS,” that was recovered Wednesday afternoon during the search for his body.
The mountain rescue team leader, Robert Graham, said the conditions that Kim faced were dangerous and physically taxing.
“It’s very rough. An hour of hiking was exhausting,” Graham said, adding that the terrain was difficult to navigate because of the cliffs and fallen timber.
The Kim family became stranded with their car on Nov. 25 after taking a wrong turn during the homeward leg of a Thanksgiving road trip to the Pacific Northwest. They survived by feeding most of their meager provisions to the children, whom Kati breast-fed when the food was gone. They ran the car heater until they ran out of gas, then burned the car tires for warmth. On Saturday at 7:45 a.m., James left in search of help, with a plan to return that afternoon.
On Monday, nine days after the family had been reported missing, a helicopter rescued Kati and the children. They left a hospital in Grants Pass on Tuesday and were described as being in good condition. The search continued for James and authorities held out hope that he would be found alive, noting how smart he and Kati had been.
On Tuesday, searchers found a pair of James’ pants about two miles from the car, at a point where it appeared he had left the road and descended into Big Windy Creek drainage, a steep canyon that empties into the Rogue River. James was found about five miles down the canyon, Anderson said Wednesday.
Searchers also found shirts, one sock, a blue skirt and pieces of an Oregon state map belonging to Kim on Tuesday. Those items were “laid out in a well-defined area, in a pattern that seemed as if it were meant for someone to follow,” said Lt. Gregg Hastings, of the Oregon State Police.
Searchers had made plans to drop rescue packages for Kim with clothing, emergency gear and provisions.
Although Kim was found about a half-mile from where he started, close to the family’s car, Anderson said he may have walked up to seven miles in search for help. It is believed that he walked about two miles down the road back from where the family had driven and about five miles down the canyon, Anderson said Wednesday.
Details about the manner and cause of Kim’s death were not available Wednesday. An Oregon state medical examiner will performthe autopsy on Kim’s body and information is planned for release today, according to Anderson.
Search exacts emotional toll on team
More than 100 searchers worked around the clock to find James Kim, and when his body was found Wednesday, the emotional connection and respect many felt for the man who tried to save his young family became apparent.
“I’m crushed,” Josephine County Undersheriff Brian Anderson said Wednesday. “Most of us have breathed and lived this for days. And yeah, you do take it personally; and it’s been tough.”
Anderson was emotionally choked up during the press conference in which he announced the discovery of Kim’s body, stopping at one point to collect himself.
The Oregon authorities searched by air, foot and raft around the clock in the exhausting and challenging physical conditions of the Oregon wilderness.
Anderson described the effort to find the Kims as “a rather massive search effort’’ that included federal, state, county and private entities that worked together.
The extended family of Kati and James was praised for financing the helicopter searches.
“We are hampered sometimes on getting resources in,’’ Anderson said. “To have the availability of three helicopters like this is unheard of for us.’’
On Tuesday, a helicopter with heat-sensitive technology identified two “hot spots” in the five-mile canyon where Kim’s body was found Wednesday.