GRANTS PASS — Investigators have no way of knowing whether San Francisco online editor James Kim could have been saved after his family took the wrong fork of a backcountry road in Southern Oregon, triggering a massive search, a sheriff’s association review concluded Thursday.
The review concluded the search was marked by "frequent confusion" over who was in charge, and searchers could have gotten on the ground near the Kims earlier on the day after James Kim set out on foot for help — if they had worked through the night with new information from cell phone records.
But there is no firm evidence they could have reached the Kims in time to save James Kim’s life, said Klamath County Sheriff Tim Evinger, who headed the review by the Oregon State Sheriffs’ Association.
"There were just too many variables to know one event that would have changed the outcome," said Evinger.
The review released Thursday has new information from Kim’s wife, Kati, about how the family on its way home from a Thanksgiving trip took a wrong turn Nov. 25 on a backcountry route through the Siskiyou National Forest known as Bear Camp Road. James Kim died of exposure trying to hike out. Kati Kim and the girls were rescued.
Kati Kim told investigators the family took the left fork, staying on Bear Camp Road, but returned to the fork by backing down a hill after seeing snow ahead. They narrowness of the road, with steep dropoffs, made them afraid to turn around to return to the freeway, Evinger said.
"The road to the right is paved as well, and actually wider than the correct road," Evinger told The Associated Press. "So they chose to get to a lower elevation to get out of the snow. So they went to the right."
They followed that logging road 21 miles and stopped at 2 a.m. to save gas for warmth, Evinger said. They became stranded when more snow fell the next night, he said.
"There was a whole lot of small choices, whether good bad or indifferent, that put them in the situation they were," said Evinger.
Kati Kim did not recall seeing three signs warning the road to the coast could be blocked by snow, but did see a parked snowplow along the way that led her to believe the road was maintained, Evinger said. The first sign she recalled warning of snowdrifts was at the fork.
Before reaching Bear Camp Road, they stopped at a gas station in Merlin for directions, Evinger said. James Kim returned to the car frustrated because the attendant did not seem to understand him but got no indication the road could be dangerous in winter, Evinger added.
After stories in The Oregonian newspaper suggested officials in Josephine County did not make effective use of tips about what road the Kims might have taken, the Josephine County Sheriff’s Patrol Search and Rescue, a nonprofit group of volunteers, asked for the review.
It found confusion about who was leading operations — the state police, the Josephine County Sheriff’s Department, or someone on the ground. One time the command center was closed before search teams left the field, and they were not debriefed. Only once did search commanders prepare plans for the next day.
The review recommended that the incident command system used in fighting wildfires and other major emergencies be used on all search and rescue missions, and that searchers be taught what sorts of .
"Had we met through the night we could have had searchers on the ground five hours sooner," said Sara Rubrecht, Josephine County emergency manager and search and rescue coordinator. "If key people running the search met all night Saturday night they wouldn’t have been available Sunday to run the search when searchers were out in the field. Due to a lack of depth of personnel that would have been the only problem we would have seen with having that meeting overnight."
Josephine County Sheriff Gil Gilbertson, who came into office after the search was completed, said a series of recommendations in the report to improve search and rescue operations would be implemented.
Two Edge Wireless engineers found a text message for the Kims had bounced off a cell tower near Glendale and been received to the west. They notified authorities the night of Dec. 2, which focused the search.
The report will go to Gov. Ted Kulongoski, who plans to name a task force to recommend ways the state can help county search and rescue efforts. Under state law, county sheriffs have jurisdiction over search and rescue efforts.
The Kims were not reported missing for four days, and the initial search stretched more than 300 miles between Portland and Gold Beach.
They had been stranded a week with little food when James Kim hiked out for help Dec. 2.
When James Kim did not return as planned, Kati Kim strapped the two girls to her and tried to hike out herself, but she felt weak and returned to the car, Evinger said.
Two days after he left, Kati Kim and the girls were found by a local helicopter pilot who was following a hunch.
While stranded, the Kims burned tires to try to signal rescuers. At one point they heard a helicopter, but could not get their signal fire going, Evinger said.
Kati Kim "said it was the darkest, most depressing moment when they couldn’t get the fire lit after hearing the helicopter, knowing they were going to spend another night," he said.