The Kims and Their Doomed Trip

The SAR Effort: Bungled or Undermined?

Who Was Responsible?

Lessons to Learn

Afterthoughts: Summer 2007

Media and Official Reports Archive

Who Was Responsible?

Here’s 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.

I 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:

Negligent: Failing to exercise the care expected of a reasonably prudent person in like circumstances

Flawed: Displaying or containing an imperfection or weakness, especially one that detracts from the whole or hinders effectiveness

Irrelevant: Not having significant and demonstrable bearing on the matter at hand

Admirable: Deserving the highest esteem

Praiseworthy: Laudable, worthy of favorable judgment

Readers 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.

In 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.

I 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.

Finally, 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.


James and Kati Kim. They 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.

The 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.

I 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 wilderness route.

Mrs. 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.

When 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.

Sara 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 owner’s information.

I 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.


SAR 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.

The 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 with.

Moreover, 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 firmly held.


Signs 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 Kim died.

The 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 did.

Electronic 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.

Undersheriff’s 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.

Cellular 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.

Privacy rules. The 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.


James 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.

John Rachor. This private helicopter pilot’s diligence was principally responsible for the rescue of Kati Kim and the Kim children.

SAR Volunteers. Approximately 100 unpaid residents of southwestern Oregon joined the hazardous search of rugged country, and did so without pay or complaint.

John 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.

Spencer 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.


Sara 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 do so.

Media and Blogs

I 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.

I 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.

Blogs 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.

I 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.

I 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 Oregon.

A 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 research.

Ironically, 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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