Kims and Their Doomed Trip
SAR Effort: Bungled or Undermined?
and Official Reports Archive
where it gets controversial. I have made some judgments, and
some people won’t like them. I’ve seen some words
tossed around on comment boards, such as “stupid,”
“negligent,” “sociopathic,” “heroic,”
“reckless,” and “crazy.” In preparing
this section of the narrative, I rejeced most of those words
as either personally insulting, overheated or both.
did preserve the word negligent, which has been used by
critics of various participants, while rejecting a close
cousin, reckless, as too harsh. To insure that readers
correctly understand the labels, I provided their definitions
from the Merriam-Webster on-line dictionary:
Failing to exercise the care expected of a reasonably prudent
person in like circumstances
Displaying or containing an imperfection or weakness,
especially one that detracts from the whole or hinders
Not having significant and demonstrable bearing on the matter
Deserving the highest esteem
Laudable, worthy of favorable judgment
will notice that some participants are listed under both
positive and negative labels. I think this reflects the human
condition. Show us the purely negligent or purely admirable
character, and we will show you a work of fiction. The actors
in the Kim tragedy are first and foremost human beings,
susceptible to mistakes and triumphs, occasionally in the
space of a few minutes and certainly over a period of 11 days.
making these judgments, I’ve used “The Prudent
Person Rule,” which views actions according to what a
person applying ordinary standards of care could be expected
to do in a similar situation. Not all mistakes are
“negligent,” nor are all successes “admirable.”
Some flaws or triumphs are irrelevant to the issue at hand.
caution against any temptation to conclude that errors cancel
each other out. This attitude is captured by the stock phrase,
“Everyone can share a little bit of the blame here.”
That’s not true in this case, and I think it’s
rarely true in general. There are degrees of responsibility,
and errors tend to compound rather than offset each other.
to those who might object to my beginning the list with the
word negligent as being too negative, I offer this answer:
Someone died an unnecessary death, and three more people came
too close for comfort. The rescue of Mrs. Kim and her children
notwithstanding, this was not a happy event and I will not
going to present it as one.
and Kati Kim.
did not, as many media reports said, simply take a wrong turn
and wind up in the wilderness on the night of Nov. 25-26. They
ignored at least eight warnings against winter travel in the
Rogue Wilderness: Two delivered verbally, two on an Oregon
highway map, and four on road signs along their route. At a
critical juncture on a snowy night, the Kims elected to take
an unknown road farther into the wilderness rather than return
to Interestate 5.
Kims did not make those misjudgments in isolation. They must
be viewed within a broader context of a late departure from
Halsey, Oregon; foul weather – actual and forecast --
both that day, that night and indeed throughout their trip to
and from Seattle; their prior residence in Oregon; the
presence of two very young children in their car; plentiful
alternatives for their route and accommodations; and the Kims'
lack of emergency equipment and seasonal clothing.
am skeptical of Mrs. Kim’s account of the events of Nov.
25-26. I believe that the Kims stopped at a tourist
information center in Wilsonville, just south of Portland,
shortly after noon, and took five to six hours to make what is
normally a one-hour trip to Halsey, where they refilled their
fuel tank. I think the Kims activities during this time gap
might go far to explain their haste later that day. I am not
convinced that the Kims missed an exit from Interstate 5 to
Oregon Hwy. 42, as Mrs. Kim has insisted. More likely, in my
view, is that they had decided earlier in the day to use the
Kim’s account of weather conditions on the night of Nov.
25 does not ring true. If it were dry until just before they
were stopped by snow, as she claimed, they could have easily
returned to I-5 rather than proceed down the logging road. I
think it’s more likely that it had been snowing heavily
as they proceeded up Bear Camp Road. I also suspect that the
Kims took the logging road not just to seek a lower elevation,
but because they believed they could reach the luxury resort
at Gold Beach.
all of these factors are combined, I believe that the Kims
were consumed by "Get-There-Itis." Their
determination to reach Gold Beach overrode their judgment, at
the expense of the care and prudence to be expected from
parents of two young children whose lives they endangered that
night. The Kims themselves bear the primary responsibility for
the fate that befell James Kim and the near death of the other
members of the family.
Rubrecht and Jason Stanton. On Friday, Dec. 1, these two
officials dismissed a valid tip from John James, the owner of
the Black Bar Lodge, that he and his brother had found fresh
tire tracks on the logging road where the Kims were stranded.
While I sympathize with Ms. Rubrecht, a part-time employee who
was ill at the time she spoke with the lodge owner, and who
was overwhelmed by the demands of her poorly defined job, I
note that she wasn’t alone with the lodge owner. She was
accompanied by Mr. Stanton, who also dismissed the lodge
am unpersuaded by Ms. Rubrecht and Mr. Stanton’s
inability to recall the relevant details of their conversation
with with lodge owner. Even if they had never been advised to
search the entire length of the logging road, I think prudent
SAR managers would have taken the initiative to do so once
told about the fresh tire tracks there. Illness and alleged
miscommunication cannot be allowed to obscure the essential
truth: If either Rubrecht or Stanton had acted on the lodge
owner’s suggestion to search the entire length of the
road, James Kim would be alive today.
disorganization. The incoherent structure of SAR
management led Spencer Kim, father of James Kim, to start his
own SAR operation through Carson Helicopter Services, a
private agency. Flights by Carson on Friday, Dec. 1 and
Saturday, Dec. 2 might have kept the Oregon Army National
Guard from finding all of the Kims at that time.
unlocked gate. The Kims wound up on the logging road
because the Bureau of Land Management had failed to lock a
gate. However, this fact must be balanced against other
realities, mainly connected to the wilderness nature of the
road and my belief that the Kims were negligent in having
traveled as far as the logging road intersection to begin
I am not not convinced that a locked gate would have changed
the outcome. The Kims were determined to reach Gold Beach that
night, and I think they would have searched for other
opportunities to do it. My conclusion on these issues is
and mapping. I summarily reject criticism of ODOT map
design, and find that objections to the language of the
warnings listed there and on three road signs along the Kims’
route to be irrelevant. I regard as facetious and dilatory the
objections from some observers that the use of the word
“winter” in various warnings invited them to be
disregarded because winter had not officially begun when James
year after the tragedy, ODOT changed its designation of
seasonal roads, rendering them in dashed lines rather than
solid ones. While that change was appropriate, I firmly
believe that the warnings on the 2006 ODOT map were adequate.
I believe that the Kims were more than adequately warned on
the night of Nov. 25, and chose to take the risks that they
mapping services. Some critics have noted that various
Internet mapping sites, such as MapQuest and Yahoo, route
drivers to the coast via Bear Camp Road. I firmly believe this
to be irrelevant, as the Kims did not use such services to
find their way to Bear Camp Road.
football game. The Portland Oregonian reported that
Josephine County Undersheriff Brian Anderson ignored a
telephone call from SAR coordinator Rubrecht on the night of
Saturday, Dec. 1 because it was his day off and he was
watching a football game. Both parties have denied that such a
call was made; if it had been made, it would have occurred
after SAR activities had ceased for the night. Anderson
attended a SAR meeting the next morning; therefore, an
unanswered call had no bearing on the outcome of events. I
strongly believe that the Oregonian owes Mr. Anderson
an apology for its unfair treatment. To my knowledge, no such
apology was ever delivered.
mapping. Much was made of efforts by a cellular switching
technician to use a “ping” from one of the Kims’
cellphones to locate them. I am reminded of the line from
Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “It is a tale full
of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” The day might
come when cellular technology can be used to locate people
lost in remote areas, but it has not arrived yet.
well-founded refusal by Portland’s Hotel Lucia to
release James Kim’s hotel and phone records to Michael
Weinstein, a Portland police detective, had no impact on the
case. The records, and the information they were used to
track, were available to police and the Kim family before the
search began. I believe that Det. Weinstein, the Portland
police department, the Portland Oregonian,
and Spencer Kim owe the hotel apologies for misrepresenting
its action, potentially damaging the hotel’s reputation
and business. To my knowledge, no apologies were ever given.
and Kati Kim. Though their desperate situation was of
their own making, I think the Kims deserve praise for their
determined efforts on behalf of their children after the
family was stranded.
Rachor. This private helicopter pilot’s diligence
was principally responsible for the rescue of Kati Kim and the
Volunteers. Approximately 100 unpaid residents of
southwestern Oregon joined the hazardous search of rugged
country, and did so without pay or complaint.
James, owner of the Black Bar Lodge, who unsuccessfully
tried to persuade Sara Rubrecht and Jason Stanton to order a
search of the logging road leading to where Mrs. Kim and the
Kim children were ultimately found.
Kim. It is unclear whether his efforts helped or hurt the
SAR effort, but I was impressed by the vigor he displayed on
behalf of his son and family.
Rubrecht. Though I deemed her negligent for the reasons
mentioned above, I was impressed by her admission that she was
overwhelmed by events. It was rare, and refreshing, for her to
address their performance separately because they were not
participants in the events. While I've noted some stumbles by
the Portland Oregonian – its unfairness toward
Josephine County Undersheriff Brian Anderson being one example
– I was nevertheless impressed by the thoroughness and
vigor of its coverage. Those without a media background
underestimate the pressures that bear upon those who seek to
offer reliable, accurate accounts of complex, rapidly shifting
events within constraints of competition, time, resources, and
the changing conventions of journalism.
note that the Associated Press, a wire service supported by
electronic and print media, filed a series of concise,
accurate, and thorough accounts. In particular, Jeff Barnard's
Dec. 7, 2006 report, based on interviews with authorities who
interviewed Kati Kim over a period of several days, stood out
as solid, professional and definitive.
turned in a mixed performance. Some postings offered solid,
useful information. Others gave logical analysis and useful
suggestions for improvements that could help avert similar
tragedies in the future. On the downside, I think that
emotions frequently overwhelmed logic – more so as time
passed and the uncovering of new facts ceased. In our view,
the most valuable blog took the form of a collection of photos
of the Kims’ route.
have noted a polarization of sentiment on other blogs.
Criticism of the participants in the events became
increasingly harsh once the saga was over, and the reluctance
to acknowledge negligence or mistakes become increasingly
bitter. More recently, I note the formation of a tacit bargain
to overlook all mistakes, reflecting a "let bygones be
bygones" sentiment. Such a bargain is the opponent of
thoughtful analysis. Only by clearly identifying the mistakes
made between Nov. 25 and Dec. 6 can steps be taken to avoid a
repetition of the events that led to the tragic death of James
Kim, and the endangerment of his wife and children.
was sorely disappointed with the performances of distant media
outlets. It’s understandable for CNET, a trade journal
that exists primarily as a promotional vehicle to begin with,
to have rushed to attach a hero label upon its staffer. But I
think much of the coverage by the San Francisco Chronicle
and most by the national television networks, in particular
CNN, amounted to one-dimensional caricature of a saintly
family undone by the villains and fools of southwestern
subsequent retrospective program, produced by London-based
Firecracker Films and aired Feb. 11, 2011 by the ABC
television network as a segment of its long-running 20/20
series, deserves special mention as one of the shoddiest
pieces of work this writer has ever seen. In that two-hour
program, Mrs. Kim offered an account that directly
contradicted the essential elements of the version she gave to
law enforcement investigators after she was rescued. It is
hard to believe that the producers did even the simplest
it is the national media that had the most resources to devote
to useful reporting, but these days they all too frequently
choose the easy path of turning news into entertainment. I
realize that sensationalism has become the coin of the realm,
yet I cannot help but remark how far the standards of so much
of what were once the “news” media have eroded.
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2011 Charles Wilson, all rights reserved