December 6, 2007 1:02 PM PST

Lessons learned from Kim tragedy

Travelers, hikers, and mountain climbers are safer now because of James Kim.

It was a year ago today that Kim's body was found after he, his wife, and two daughters were stranded for more than a week in a snowy national forest in Oregon. Kim's family survived, but he died of exposure after setting out to find help.

Kim's story drew national attention to missteps made by Oregon authorities as they searched for the CNET Reviews editor and his family last December. An ensuing investigation has led to improvements in search-and-rescue techniques in Oregon and a better understanding across the country of how cell phones can save lives.

Part of Kim's legacy is that if people were to find themselves in the same predicament today, the chances are higher that they would be found sooner.

"Things have improved with (search-and-rescue procedures)," said Scott Nelson Windels, a close friend to James and Kati Kim. "But there is still plenty of room for improvement."

Following the search, Kim's father, Spencer, complained that Oregon officials had botched the search for his son. A review of authorities' performance exposed numerous shortcomings. Chief among them was that Oregon and San Francisco law enforcement officials had little understanding of how to trace a cell phone.

According to a report issued by the Oregon State Sheriff's Association last summer, a San Francisco detective looking for the Kims asked their cell phone company where the family had made their last call. Instead, the detective should have asked where the Kims' phones had made their last electronic "handshake" with a cell phone tower.

Even when people aren't on their cell phones, the handsets try to communicate, or "shake hands," with nearby cell towers every 30 seconds to register their location. Companies maintain records of the handshakes, including when the contact was made and signal strength, which can help pinpoint a phone's location.

It should be noted that most newer cell phones come equipped with a GPS chip inside them, which makes locating them even easier.

Luckily for Kati Kim and her two daughters, two employees from Edge Wireless, Eric Fuqua and Noah Pugsley, took an interest in the case. Of their own volition, they contacted Kim's relatives and obtained their phone numbers. This helped them track down the electronic handshakes made by James Kim's phone.

Fuqua and Pugsley went to the police with their information, and this eventually led to the rescue of Kim's wife and children.

But days had passed before Fuqua and Pugsley got involved. Had detectives known about this technology earlier, they might have been able to rescue the entire family.

Oregon is trying to learn from its mistakes. Local phone companies have trained searchers on tracing cell phones. The state has also worked to eliminate other glaring problems.

Oregon passed a law this year that requires searchers to clarify who is responsible for overseeing multi-agency rescue operations. The search for the Kims was said to be hampered by miscommunication between the different agencies involved. In addition, the road the Kims were stranded on, Bear Camp Road, has been closed.

The James Kim story has undoubtedly raised awareness in other areas of the country. In September, a woman trapped in her car for a week after she crashed into a ravine near Renton, Wash., was rescued by tracing her cell phone handshakes.

Kim's legacy lives on in other ways, as well. In his memory, the nonprofit James Kim Technology Foundation was created to ensure that children in San Francisco public schools have access to the technology that is helping shape the world around them.

See more CNET content tagged:
Oregon, handshake, cell phone, telephone company, family


Join the conversation!
Add your comment
I used this once 3 years ago
Some 3+ years ago my daughter's car broke down on the I95 in NC. It was dark and she didn't know where she was. We called AAA and she dialed 911 (at AAA's instance). I also called Sprint, as her cellphoine was on my "family" plan. Within minutes they triangulated her location down to a few miles. The State troopers failed to find her and even insisted I was giving them "incorrect" information. (Note I live 10+ hours away). Near 5 hours after her breaking down the sole tow truck dispatched by AAA, to the approx co-ordinates I got from Sprint, found her and towed her to safety. Thankyou AAA I am a member for life and thankyou Sprint!
Now my tricky question and I am sorry I have to ask this. How come nobody a CNET followed up and instigated such a request of the family's cell phone carrier? I also presume that it was your vast coverage that instigated these people to contact the family with the idea, eventually.
Posted by IanrJ (9 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Not Applicable
Your daughter broke down on I-95. The Kims were stranded on a remote logging road in rugged country more than 50 miles from I-5.

They tried to call 911 but didn't get through. Their signal pinged one cell tower, but by the time this information became known the search had already started in that area, which had been established through traditional police methods.

Technology improvements are not relevant to the Kims' case. They weren't done in by a lack of technology, they were done in primarily by their own imprudence, with the help of the negligence of two search and rescue supervisors.

For a full, thorough, and objective account of the Kim tragedy, see <a class="jive-link-external" href="" target="_newWindow"></a>
Posted by qednw (23 comments )
Link Flag
James Kim is sorely missed. Not just for his reporting but also his personality (which is apparent from Cnet TV). It says everything about the man that he sacrificed himself in order to help save his Wife and Children.
Last week Jeff Gerstmann Editor of Gamespot was sacked. He is a legend in gaming circles for his honesty. I just hope CNET and is not going to the dogs.
Posted by Jamie_Foster (77 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Thanks for deleting my post
I guess the fact that foolishly walking into the woods in winter(where he should never have gone unprepared), and not having adequate supplies, maps or anything else should be suppressed.

Why bring up personal responsibility when there are convenient scapegoats?

I am not making light of his tragic death, just pointing out it was 100% in his power to prevent.
Posted by The_Decider (3097 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Your car has EVERYTHING
Stop talking out of your @$$. I'm sure your car has a GPS, a flare gun, a warehouse of food and water, and everything else they would have 'needed' to survive. It easy to say he should of, could of, all you want but you were not even there.
Posted by Gasaraki (183 comments )
Link Flag
I will never forget...
During this tragedy I prayed daily for the Kim's rescue. It was so
tragic they couldn't be found sooner. After this happened, I put
together what I call my "I'm not going to die like James Kim
emergency kit." Absolutely no disrespect is intended. Whenever
my family hits the road or goes on any camping trip (regardless
of the weather) I take this kit. I recall his conditions and sacrifice
and try to make sure we are prepared for any contingency.

My thoughts and prayers are very often with his family, friends
and co-workers. I have no doubt his sacrifice will eventually
save far more lives (if not more precious to him) than just his
family. Peace and comfort to all those who knew him.
Posted by orygun--2008 (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Lessons learned but not applied.
join - <a class="jive-link-external" href="" target="_newWindow"></a>
Posted by anadirsitio (4 comments )
Reply Link Flag
CNET Misdiagnosis
With all due respect to CNET and its parochial obsession with high-tech solutions, cellphone tracing was irrelevant to James Kim's death. So was disorganization of search &#38; rescue efforts.

James Kim died primarily as the result of his and his wife's imprudence, and partly as the result of two searchers' failure to follow up on a solid lead. To the extent that anyone is "safer" today, it is because James and Kati Kim set an example of how not to travel in the wilderness during inclement weather.

The searchers' failure falls into the category of standard human error. Two searchers on a road together received a tip from a local resident. One of the searchers was sick that morning, and as a result the two of them gave short shrift to the information. It was a one-off of the sort seen throughout human history.

As for cellphone issue, once the Kims were reported missing by friends, searchers almost immediately focused their efforts in the right area. Fuqua's cellphone information added nothing, and I found his later effort to grandstand to be questionable at the very best.

Spencer Kim's efforts, while laudible for their motive, interfered with the search efforts and might have cost his son his life. On the very first day of the search, he failed to move his private helicopters out of the way of a National Guard search team. The result was a several-hour delay that made that day's search useless and caused the National Guard to withdraw from the search.

The elder Kin's criticisms of the search effort failed to mention, much less take responsibility for, this critical event. His demand that BLM acreage larger than the state of Connecticut be rendered off limits to the public was wildly out of step with reality, as was his demand that financial privacy rules be revoked for any claim of an "emergency."

For a full, impartial, objective analysis of the events of Nov. 25-Dec. 6, 2006, see <a class="jive-link-external" href="" target="_newWindow"></a>
Posted by qednw (23 comments )
Reply Link Flag
I remember James fodly from TV and from this site. It was a loss that many of us all over the country felt.
Posted by ilovedessert1 (22 comments )
Reply Link Flag

Join the conversation

Add your comment

The posting of advertisements, profanity, or personal attacks is prohibited. Click here to review our Terms of Use.

What's Hot



RSS Feeds

Add headlines from CNET News to your homepage or feedreader.