Jackson County searchers mourned the San Francisco man they had spent days seeking in an intensive, multi-agency search in the mountains west of Grants Pass, calling James Kim a hero for his efforts to get help for his family.
"When you find remains, you have to grieve a little," said Randy Jones, a Rogue Valley builder who volunteers to lead the county's searches by helicopter. "These people become part of you as you give of your time."
Jones flew several search flights over the remote region and coordinated Tuesday's aerial efforts, including fetching possessions from the Kims' car and lowering a Jackson County deputy into the steep Big Windy Creek drainage to collect scattered items authorities believed James Kim had left as a signal to searchers. Jones was back in his office Wednesday and didn't participate in recovery efforts.
"This man's desire to live and save his family was heroic," Jones said.
Kim, his wife, Kati, and their two daughters, Penelope, 4, and Sabine, 7 months, got stranded on a remote road off winding Bear Camp Road Nov. 25. They had spent Thanksgiving in Seattle, visited friends in Portland and planned to spend the night in Gold Beach on their way home to San Francisco. Friends and co-workers reported them missing last week and a widespread search in Southern Oregon started Friday.
John Rachor, a Central Point pilot with 30 years' experience, saw a Mail Tribune story about the missing family and decided he had to go look for them.
"I know that area pretty well," said Rachor, who has a cabin in Agness and flies or drives over the route frequently. "And I've got a pair of grandkids about the same ages as those girls. I thought about those kids and I would have looked all winter for them."
Knowing that the twisting route leading from Bear Camp Road down to Black Bar Lodge is an easy wrong turn to make, he focused his search there. Monday afternoon, he spotted Kati Kim running up and down the road near the family's silver Saab station wagon and waving an umbrella to attract his attention. An SOS message had been stomped into snow nearby.
"The visibility is so narrow on that road the chances of finding them were slim," Jones said. "No other searchers had gotten down that far, but John knew that canyon," and his small helicopter could slip in to search.
Rachor radioed the command center and a larger Carson helicopter hired by the Kim family went in to get Kati and the girls.
Both Jones and Rachor helped track James Kim's footprints through the snow. He had left his wife and children at the car Saturday to seek help.
Jones said Kim apparently walked along the road for four or five miles. Then, his tracks crossed paths with a big black bear headed downhill across the road. Jones speculated that Kim headed down the steep ravine to avoid the animal, which appears to have followed him.
Kim hiked several more miles in the Big Windy Creek drainage.
"Those were the toughest miles anyone could traverse," Jones said. "I doubt any human has ever walked in there before him."
He described the rugged territory as "virgin wilderness," with old-growth trees towering more than 200 feet high, heavy brush, fallen logs and boulders, as well as cliffs walling the creek in some areas.
Searchers working their way down the drainage Tuesday discovered a spare pair of pants that Kim had left in what they hoped was a sign for them. From the air, teams spotted a collection of clothing and Jones helped coordinate lowering a Jackson County SWAT team deputy 200 feet down a rope to collect them.
"Those were not there Monday," Jones said. "He was still on the move Tuesday."
The deputy collected two gray sweatshirts, a red T-shirt, a wool sock, a blue girl's skirt and pieces of an Oregon map, and saw where someone had slept on the ground, Jones said.
With darkness approaching, the deputy had to return to the helicopter, Jones said.
"You have to be safety conscious," he said. "Everybody is putting themselves at risk to help others like this. We were so close to getting him, just hours or short days."
He said it's easy for searchers to beat themselves up, questioning what more they could have done.
"As search and rescue teams, the operative word is rescue," Jones said. "Every fiber of all 100 of us involved in this wanted to find this person alive. That's what we work for.
"This isn't a job, even for those who get paid. It is a passion."
Two of Jones' first rescue missions with Jackson County turned into body recoveries and he wavered in whether search and rescue was something he wanted to do.
"You have to be careful not to play head trips on yourself," he said.
But it also filled a deep need in him. Once a troubled kid who found people to reach out and encourage him, he wanted to stretch out a helping hand to others in need, he explained. And nowhere was need more immediate and apparent than the calls for help that search and rescue teams hear each year from lost hunters, elderly couples stranded by rising floodwaters or kids swept down raging rivers.
Jackson County didn't have its own aerial search capabilities before Jones joined the team four years ago, but he thought he had the skills and resources to add that tool.
Now he's encouraging Rachor, who has searched on a freelance basis, to join the team, too.
"This helps fulfill my passion to help those in need," Jones said. "We are a team there to help whoever is in harm's way in our area, no matter who they are."
Reach reporter Anita Burke at 776-4485, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.