The Tragedy of the Kim Family
Bill Long 12/12/06
Recreating the Fatal "Trip"
Along with millions of Americans, I confess I was powerfully moved as details gradually emerged regarding the James Kim family's fateful trip from Portland into the Oregon Coast mountains a two weeks ago. In fact, I couldn't get the story out of my mind. In a situation like this what I like to do is study the situation in detail and go over the horror repeatedly in my mind as it must have developed. I don't always ask all the same questions that the news media asked. In addition, I drove to Southern Oregon today, retracing the Kim's route until their turn onto Bear Camp Road (Route 23), and I learned some things that weren't in the newspapers. These two essays tell you what I learned.
Traveling Down I-5 from Portland on Sat, Nov. 25
Two days after Thanksgiving the Kim family left Portland, where they had lunched with friends, and headed south on I-5, the major north-south artery through the West Coast. They had reservations that night at the Tu Tu Tun Lodge in Gold Beach, OR (on the southern Oregon Coast), and so had to cross over the Coast Range, a distance of about 60 or so miles, someplace between Portland and Grants Pass (Portland is exit 300 on I-5; Grants Pass is exit 58--the miles count north from the CA border). Their plan was to cross the Coast Range just South of Roseburg on Oregon 42. It is a well-traveled double-lane paved road, and it would have been cleared of all snow. But, apparently, they "missed" the turnoff, and headed South to cross at Grants Pass.
No one has commented on "missing" the turnoff, but here is what I discovered today, as I drove South on I-5. The sign to OR 42 on I-5 is actually a fairly complicated sign. The reason is that it has TWO numbers of the routes you could seek, with Route 99 appearing on the left and Route 42 on the right. Sorry I can't reproduce it here precisely, but it is something like this:
In other words, if the Kim family was looking for "42," they could easily have missed the sign, because they might have just seen the "99." Indeed, what I discovered was actually more scary than that. As I approached the sign announcing that the exit was one mile away, I shuddered because there was a growth of pine or fir branch covering the "42" on the right of the sign. Thus it would have been nearly impossible for them to have seen the "42" on the sign. I was looking for it, I knew where it was and I almost missed it. I had to crane my neck as I was passing the sign to see the "42." No one has yet pointed this out. There was one more sign right at the exit, as usual, but if they hadn't been prepared for it before that time, there was no reason to think they would have seen it. Thus, if someone is considering a lawsuit, they ought to think about whether the Oregon Department of Transportation had done its job in keeping the branches cropped that cover the road signs.
So, the Kim family continued South from Roseburg (approx. exit 120) toward Grants Pass. Of course I asked myself the question as to why they didn't turn around and seek out State Route 42, but they may have felt that since there seemed to be another "good" route from Grants Pass to the Coast, they would just continue South. As you continue South there is a rest stop at milepost 81 (Glendale), and there are two maps posted in a kiosk at that rest stop. Only the one on the left says that the route from Grants Pass to Gold Beach, which the Kim's took, was "closed" in Winter. No one knows if the Kim's stopped at that rest stop.
They exited the highway just before reaching Grants Pass (two exits--58 and 55) at a little town named Merlin. Route 23 (also known as Bear Camp Road) picks up just West of Merlin and would take them over the Coast Range. This is not a well-maintained road, and is barely-traveled in the Winter. What they didn't know was that the summit of the Coast Range using Route 23 was about 4700 feet above sea level, well above the snow line on Nov. 25. Ironically, when I traveled along I-5 today into CA, going over the Siskiyou Summit (4310 feet, the highest point on I-5), the pavement was bone dry and the snow had melted probably to 5,000 feet. That is, the Kim's were traveling over the Coast Range at the end of lots of heavy storms which we had in Nov. Nov. was the third or second wettest on record for most of Western Oregon.
In Grants Pass and Environs
I stopped in Grants Pass today at the Visitor Information Center to learn about Route 23. A weary-looking woman, who said they had been bombarded by reporters over the past two weeks, patiently showed me on a map where she lived (right where Route 23 goes directly West over the Coast Range), but then added some interesting facts. She said that the peak of the Coast Range is at milepost 25 along Route 23, that normally snow doesn't reach lower than milepost 17 (that is, 17 miles West of Merlin), but that this year things had been considerably worse, making the snowline back up to about milepost 10 or 12.
It was slightly beyond the snowline that the Kim's took a right onto a spur road that would get them out of the snow, since it headed mostly parallel to 23 but then down into a canyon. That spur road, an old forest service road, was padlocked shut on Nov. 1 because there is no one who lives down that road. [Note: This was the first report--that the road was padlocked. The US Forest Service is now admitting that it forgot to or neglected to padlock the gate.] The road eventually winds down to the Rogue River, after about 20-25 miles. The Rogue River is at its wildest as it winds through the deep canyons abutting this area. But, according to authorites, someone had cut the padlock on the gate to the spur road between Nov. 1 and Nov. 25 thus allowing the Kim's to go down that route. [As I said, this first report had now been changed.] Here is a series of detailed maps, which I am sure you will find interesting. What isn't clear from all the reports is whether the Kim's took the spur road down the canyon because they thought this was actually the route to the coast or because they just wanted to get below the snow line, turn around, and come back. The signage at this point is not very clear, according to authorities. The last signs that they would have seen said that it was 30 miles to Agness. Agness is a small town on the West Side of the Coast Range. Thus, the Kim's no doubt thought that they had only 23 miles to go until they were "in safety."
By taking the old forest service road to the West and then North, enabling them to descend into a canyon and get below the snow line, the Kim's began a chain of horror events that didn't end until James Kim's body was found on Wed. Dec. 6, eleven days later. The next essay takes us from their errant turn until the finding of the family and, sadly, the finding of James Kim.