A Tragic Wrong Turn In the Snow

James Kim couldn't wait another minute. Lost in a blizzard while driving home to San Francisco from Seattle, Kim had been stranded for a week with his wife, Kati, and their two young daughters inside their Saab station wagon. Kati had been nursing 7-month-old Sabine and Penelope, 4, and doling out crackers, while she and James subsisted on berries and melted snow. To stay warm in subfreezing temperatures, they ran the car's engine; after the gas ran out and the battery died, they burned the car's tires, hoping the flames would be seen by helicopters they heard above the densely forested ravine where they'd been stuck since making a wrong turn onto a logging road. On Saturday, Dec. 2, Kim lit one last fire for his family, loaded a backpack with a pocketknife, extra clothing and an Oregon map. At 7:46 a.m., he left to look for help, telling Kati he was headed for a nearby town and that he'd be back in four hours.

Instead, Kim embarked on an odyssey that gripped not only San Francisco but millions nationwide who followed the family's saga minute by minute on television and the Internet. Young, attractive and entrepreneurial, the Kims were a San Francisco dream family. James, 35, the son of Korean immigrants, was a beloved online and TV personality at the technology Web site CNET and was also writing a book; Kati, 30, ran two boutiques in the city's trendiest neighborhoods. Both doted on their daughters. When the Kims failed to return home from their Thanksgiving vacation, their tech-savvy network of family and friends mounted a massive search and publicity campaign. "I can't believe how many e-mails we got from people who related in some way to their story," says Scott Nelson Windels, a family friend who gathered tips and tracked the search on a special Web site, JamesandKati.com.

Kim's father hired a fleet of private helicopters to aid authorities in rural Jackson County, which had only one chopper. In Oregon, two engineers from Edge Wireless who read on the Web site that friends had tried to call the Kims' mobile phones tracked down a "ping" one of the phones sent to a nearby cell tower. That tip allowed authorities to zero in on a funnel-shaped area west of the tower in the Siskiyou National Forest. Last Monday, John Rachor, a volunteer helicopter pilot, saw footprints and a giant sos in the snow. Minutes later, he saw something glinting--it turned out to be reflective tape Kati had taped to an umbrella she was frantically waving. "I was elated," Rachor told NEWSWEEK. "I had envisioned the car was going to be upside down in the river or something."

Kati and the girls were airlifted to a nearby hospital while the frantic search for James continued. Pilots flew over primeval forest while ground crews clambered down a steep ravine, spotting clues James appeared to have left: a pair of pants, a child's skirt, torn pieces of a map. Thinking they were closing in, rescuers dropped packets containing blankets, food and an encouraging note from James's father. At points, James's footprints were visible, along with those of a black bear. Randy Jones, another pilot who aided in the search, thought James may have left the trail to escape the bear. Disoriented, James appeared to have made a 10-mile loop through impossibly rugged terrain in his sneakers. By noon Wednesday, they zeroed in. But it was too late. James Kim lay dead, face up in a creek. "We were within hours of finding him," a tearful Jones told NEWSWEEK. Authorities determined Kim had died of exposure and hypothermia, never knowing that his footprints had led rescuers to the wife and daughters he wanted so desperately to save.