Femina Potens: Kati Kim breaks her silence to tell a story of survival. (Part 1 of 2)
On Saturday, 25 November, 2006 Kati Kim, her husband James and their two daughters were traveling home after having spent the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday in Seattle, Washington. They were on their way to the Tu Tu Tun Lodge, located near Golden Beach, Oregon, when they missed their turnoff from U.S. Interstate 5 onto Oregon Route 42. Instead of turning back, James and Kati decided to take a secondary route which they believed would lead them to the Oregon coast and their destination.
Soon – due to high snows and increasingly bad weather – the Kim family found themselves stranded in a remote area of southwestern Oregon; though, both Kati and James believed their location to be mere miles from the nearest town and that imminent help would arrive to assist them.
This was not to be the case.
Read Kate Kotler's exclusive interview with Kati Kim after the jump!
On 30 November, 2006 a co-worker of James Kim filed a missing person's report with the San Francisco police department when Kim, a senior editor at CNET, failed to return to work or answer phone calls at his home. Due to Kim’s highly regarded status within the world of technology journalism it was only a short time before the news of the missing Kim family had captivated audiences both within and beyond the San Francisco Bay Area.
A massive search effort – including more than 80 civilian volunteers, the Oregon National Guard, local and state police and private helicopters hired by the father of James Kim – began in the hopes that James, Kati and their daughters Penelope and Sabine would be found safe and alive. At the same time the traditional and online media exploded with progress reports and speculations about what had become of the San Francisco family.
On 4 December, 2006 – nearly ten days since the Kims had first become stranded – independent helicopter pilot, John Rachor, spotted Kati and her daughters alive on a remote road. He radioed their location to authorities and Kati, Penelope and Sabine were airlifted to a nearby hospital.
After Kati recounted to authorities that her husband had set out on foot from their stranded car several days prior in the hopes of finding help, the search efforts resumed to find James.
Sadly, on 6 December, 2006, James Kim’s body was found in Big Windy Creek several miles from where the Kim’s car had been stranded.
In the days, weeks and months following her ordeal and rescue, Kati Kim has avoided speaking to any member of the media.
When I was thinking of strong women to interview for this column, Kati was one of the first names which popped into my head. I do not know her personally – we are loosely connected via a similar group of friends from the review website Yelp – however, after following her story last year and her Yelp reviews since, she just epitomized the type of women whose story I’d like to share on Femina Potens: Strong, independent, soulful… a survivor. In the face of unbelievable tragedy she has managed to remain positive and strong.
So I took a chance and asked her if she would be willing to speak with me. Stating that she has a “weakness for women who share her initials,” she agreed to chat with me via phone about her experiences while stranded in the wilderness, her husband, her life after her rescue and what it means to be a strong woman.
Kate Kotler: Surrounding your ordeal in 2006 there was a blitz of media coverage; following the rescue of yourself and your daughters, you have been reluctant to speak to the media – would you be willing to share your thoughts as to why you’ve decided not to share your story?
Kati: My first reaction to your interview request and questions was “Woah,” I haven’t answered any questions to anyone in media. And, I haven’t been contacted by anyone in the media for a while now. Maybe for a month or so; and, then just today a television show from New Zealand contacted me - “Survivor” – from New Zealand… it was surreal.
While we were lost it took so long to find us; and, we knew after a certain point that there was going to be media attention, even if it was just local. It was an obvious conclusion that James and I came to. No one could have predicted how big the story was going to be. When the girls and I were first rescued there was an Oregonian cop who advised me not to speak to the media. She said “We’re going to have to sneak you in past the media [into the hospital.] Don’t talk to anyone.” The more that I understood what was going on, the more I believed that she was right; and, that it was a good idea for me not to speak to the media at all. Then in the hospital I saw so many friends, family members talking about us and it was surreal. I thought that there is no way that I’m going to go on a talk show and cry, and… I don’t want to do that, what’s the point? My kids have been totally exposed; and, there were pictures of us that were stolen and published. It was surreal seeing our faces on the cover of People magazine. When I got home I found that there was media crawling around my house… And, they were harassing the people who worked for me at Doe SF and Church Street Apothecary – who were all being so protective of us. I just didn’t want to, you know…
KK: I can completely understand that given all you’d been through.
Kati: So, after a while all I wanted was to be anonymous and normal… it was just not the right time to tell the story.
KK: Do you have plans to tell your story?
Kati: Totally, definitely – it was just such a huge deal – people are making a lot of money off my family’s tragedy. I mean, I don’t know… I just want to do it in a way that I’m not going to be ashamed of for the rest of my life. I feel like I need to do it in a way that James would be proud of. I don’t know, maybe, I’d like to write it as a book. Mostly, I think that I want to talk about how great James was, how much he loved his family; [and, I’m afraid] people wouldn’t believe it. I think our story touched a lot of people. I want people to know that this is just the way that James loved his family. I think it would do him justice.
KK: During the week that you, James and the girls were stranded what thoughts did you focus on to give you strength and help you remain positive about your eventual rescue?
Kati: For the first few days it was unimaginable that we wouldn’t get rescued right away. We didn’t have any idea how far away we were from… For the first three days we honked our horn a lot, we thought we heard snowplows in the distance. It was inconceivable we wouldn’t be rescued right away. People had to be coming. We had absolutely no idea where we were and how far away we were.
KK: What about as time wore on and it became apparent rescue wasn’t imminent?
Kati: We told a lot of stories, sang a lot of songs, we played hangman. I mean it was pretty bleak, it wasn’t fun, you know? It was pretty scary and it was definitely inconceivable to us that it would take so long to be found. We had a survival plan to keep us alive as long as possible.
KK: What did you think about after James left the car on 2 December, 2006?
Kati: When he left we wrote a plan, we wrote him a timetable. He said, “If I don’t find help within this period of time I will turn around.” He had bright stuff for marking the trees and a mirror to signal a helicopter. Until he didn’t come back that night, I had just thought – hoped - he would come back… He said, “I’ll come back with Cokes and chocolate.” He was completely determined to find us help and he had a map with him.
KK: When he didn’t return that night what did you start thinking about?
Kati: That he had died. Something had to have happened to him, he would never leave us in a million years. He would never leave his family alone. The rest of the time we were stranded he would give us his coat to keep us warm and stay up all night rubbing our feet.
He would have never left us – he was determined to help his family – I knew there was something really wrong. We were all really weak, there was no way he could have survived. And, I knew that either there was going to be bright lights and a truck and him rescuing us or… He would never in a million years leave us. He would have made sure we were found.
The next day when he didn’t come back I tried to hike out for two and a half hours. I left a note on the car that said, “James left at 7:45 am yesterday morning, he didn’t come back. I’ve taken the girls and have tried to hike out;” and, I wrote the direction we were hiking in.
KK: You tried to hike out? That’s incredibly brave. What made you turn back to the car?
Kati: Yeah, I – we – left the car and tried to hike out. Then I started having crazy delusions about drinking grapefruit juice; and, it seemed so real that I realized that it just couldn’t be real. I thought that I was really weak and that my electrolytes were messed up; and, that no good could come of it, so I turned around and headed back to the car.
Next week: Kati talks about remembering James Kim; and, life after the rescue of herself and her daughters.
Interview conducted 12 September, 2007