The Lessons In My Son's Death

By Spencer H. Kim
Saturday, January 6, 2007

Early last month my son, James Kim, died of hypothermia in a snowy wilderness in Oregon after setting out on foot to seek help for his family, who were stranded in a car.

My son's death was a tragedy that could have been prevented. A wrong turn on a poorly marked wilderness road need not have resulted in the ordeal of James's wife and two daughters, nor his death while trying desperately to find help. I am sharing some of the hard-learned lessons that I took away from my family's trauma in the hope of making it less likely that others will suffer the same fate.

First, it is crucial that measures be adopted to ensure against mistaken access to potentially hazardous logging and private roads. Those responsible for the maintenance of such roads must be required to post clear signs warning against access. Governments should allocate sufficient resources to regularly monitor roadblocks designed to prevent access, and it should be a federal crime to tamper with such signs and barriers.

Such measures might not have stopped James and his family from being misled by a map that depicted the road they chose through the Coast Range as a major thoroughfare, but they would have prevented the ill-fated turn that led them into a maze of logging roads and across treacherous terrain that travelers never should have had access to in the first place.

Locals say mistaken access to the road in question is common, although a gate is at the entrance to the logging roads specifically to prevent unsuspecting travelers from wandering onto them. The appropriate federal agencies failed to perform their duty and lock the gate for the winter. James was not the first victim of an accidental detour in the same area, but with a few changes, he could be the last.

Second, Congress should change the law so that most recent credit card and phone-use records can be immediately released to the next of kin in the event of an emergency. Privacy laws are important to safeguard personal information, but there needs to be provision for exceptional access to information by relatives when it is critical to a family member's survival.

Four days passed before we even knew James and his family were missing. But because my family was unable to confirm credit card and phone-use information until days after their absence was discovered, the start of the search was needlessly delayed. Precious time and a precious life were lost. Privacy concerns kept both the hotel where James and his family last stayed and the restaurant where they last dined from sharing credit card records, thus denying us for days important clues that would have helped narrow the initial search area.

Similarly frustrating was that we did not know about a transmission into James's cellphone on the night his family became stranded until the evening of Dec. 1 -- three full days after the San Francisco Police Department was notified that James and his family were missing. Remarkably, this information was confirmed not by authorities but by conscience-driven cellphone company engineers who saw fit to volunteer their time. This information proved critical to significantly reducing the search area, and it allowed for the discovery and safe rescue of James's wife, Kati, and my granddaughters, Penelope and Sabine, less than two days later.

Had this information been confirmed sooner, rescue teams could have immediately focused the search operation, and James probably would have been rescued with his family and spared his doomed 16-mile quest to save them. What a difference a day would have made!

Third, steps should be taken to ensure that authorities are adequately trained for search-and-rescue operations, have a clear sense of their available resources and fully understand the procedures necessary to conduct an effective, well-coordinated search-and-rescue operation.

We are eternally grateful for the heroic efforts of the search-and-rescue teams and volunteers who risked their lives to save James and his family. But the search was plagued by confusion, communication breakdowns and failures of leadership until the Oregon State Police set up a command post. The media widely reported that leads that could have led to more timely discovery of the car were not pursued. Misinformation was rampant, diverting scarce resources. Air National Guard helicopters with sensitive heat-detecting technology languished on the tarmac for days, even after the cellphone-use information provided a better picture of where James and his family probably were.

Meanwhile, James hiked through the forest for two long, cold days and nights, and Kati and her children waited through two more days of freezing temperatures until private helicopters discovered and rescued them.

Finally, the Federal Aviation Administration classification code for Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFR) to limit media presence during a life-or-death search-and-rescue operation should be more strictly enforced. A TFR is used to restrict aircraft operations within designated areas to separate "non-participating" aircraft from those engaged in official activities, including search-and-rescue operations.

Unfortunately for James, aviation authorities acquiesced to media requests to relax restrictions and allowed low-altitude media flights in the area while the aerial search was still underway. This untimely and irrational decision caused many rescue helicopters to abandon their operations for one full afternoon due to dangerous conditions created by media airplanes. It took personal pleas to Washington to get restrictions reinstated. The search, not media interest, should be the top priority.

With his last heroic determination to rescue his family, James proved himself to be a man of action. My son deserves a legacy worthy of that man. As a tribute to him, I am determined to follow his lead and do all I can to prevent another senseless tragedy.

The writer lives in Thousand Oaks, Calif.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company