Ken Garcia: Tragic tale of young father’s death goes straight to the heart

Was it the picture of Kim with his two young daughters, the perfect snapshot of a young father willing to sacrifice everything to protect his family? Was it that Kim was part of a technologically savvy media group that knew how to keep his ongoing plight in the public eye? Or was it that rescue workers worked so feverishly to find him that when they finally discovered his body it was such a crushing, emotional blow that they could barely talk about it?

No doubt it was all these things and more. The Kims’ story so deeply resonated with us because it could have happened to any one of us — a wrong turn in an unknown location, suddenly finding yourself hopelessly lost and isolated. A holiday vacation transformed into a desperate struggle for survival. The details — the heater running in the Saab to stay warm, burning the tires when the gas ran out — are so vividly real. And Kati Kim breast-feeding her two young daughters to keep them alive is something straight out of “The Grapes of Wrath.”

The fact that Kati Kim and her girls made it out alive made us root for James Kim all the more — one man’s superhuman effort to find his way out of the wilderness or be found in the process. And the tragic discovery of his body Wednesday was like a dagger in the heart to all those who wished and prayed for his survival. When Josephine County Undersheriff Brian Anderson choked back tears announcing James Kim’s fate — “We are devastated” — he was talking about us all.

Even though I have covered dozens of natural disasters and missing persons stories, only a few, like the Kims’, stand out. It may be because some are symbolic of the hope we have for the human spirit — thatit will somehow overcome against all odds. While the story unfolded after the family was reported missing, it reminded me of another local tale that gripped the national psyche and made headlines around the globe.

It was the story of Buck, who for a time was known as Lucky Buck.

After the Loma Prieta earthquake struck on Oct. 17, 1989, I was one of a team of reporters at the Los Angeles Times dispatched to the Bay Area. I ended up at the Cypress Freeway in West Oakland where I was stationed for more than a week, covering the exploits of rescue workers who were desperately trying to find anyone who might have survived inside the pancaked freeway structure that European tabloids referred to as the “Sandwich of Death.”

A few people, including two small children, were pulled from the crushing concrete within the first 24 hours, but then it became more of a quiet and somber vigil — an extended deathwatch playing out before the televised rescue operation.

Until Buck.

Nearly four full days after the freeway structure had collapsed, and nearly all hope of finding another person alive had passed, one emergency worker saw the slight movement of a hand inside a vehicle and the whole area became alive with frenzied activity. Within hours, it was announced that a man named Buck Helm, a 57-year-old longshoreman, had been pulled from the wreckage and taken to Highland Hospital in critical condition.

Buck’s survival changed the picture for everyone at the freeway site — rescue workers, public officials and the reporters — as emergency crews ramped up their efforts to see if there was even a remote possibility that someone else was still alive. It turned out not to be, but Buck became the focus of so much interest — and an international symbol of heroic resilience — that it deeply affected all those who were involved in his story when he finally succumbed to his major injuries 28 days later.

Buck and James Kim could not have been more different — a burly stevedore and a meticulous electronic editor — but they shared a thread that captures the interest and attention of people throughout the world. They were the embodiment of the human desire to protect one’s own, exhibiting an incredible will to survive while sweeping us along on an amazing journey of courage and nobility.

Their daring efforts remind us that untimely events can make heroes out of common men and why they should be remembered by anyone who needs hope, when all hope seems lost.

Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at kgarcia@examiner.com or call him at (415) 359-2663.

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