Common sense, not sweeping change

It’s not surprising that the tragedy that befell James Kim has evoked substantial emotion.

Kim, his wife Kati and two young daughters, fell victim to some poor choices, though Kati and the children were sustained by some good decisions she made once they got themselves stuck in the snow in late November on a remote logging road in southwestern Oregon.

James Kim was found dead of exposure, 11 days after the family disappeared and two days after searchers located his wife and children.

In the emotional aftermath of Kim’s death, fingers have been pointed, outrage has poured forth, and the whole situation has degenerated into what often happens after a tragedy – a cacophony of accusations and counter-accusations, most of them fron politicians and government officials.

The Oregonian newspaper has reported in-depth on the story, bringing to light the fact that officials were poorly organized in the search, there was abominably poor communication between various agencies at times, and searchers missed some vital clues that might have made a difference for Kim.

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who hails from the Bay Area, where the Kims lived, has called on the Interior Department to investigate the circumstances that led to James Kim’s death. She cited the failure of BLM employees to lock a gate that led to the logging road where the Kims got stuck.

Aerospace contractor Spencer Kim, James Kim’s father, has called for tighter controls on logging roads and changes in privacy laws that stymied searchers’ access to his son’s family’s phone records, which contained definite clues as to their whereabouts.

Gov. Ted Kulongoski has received a chronology from the state Office of Emergency Management on the order of events that led up to the discovery of Kim’s body. Last week the governor issued an executive order creating a taskforce to look into the need for changes to state laws and procedures to improve cooperation and coordination between agencies in such searches.

A review by the Oregon State Sheriff’s Association concluded last week that there really is no way to know whether any of the errors that took place during the search really made a difference or that Kim’s life could have been saved. There were, reviewers said, just too many variables in this situation.

The review did recommend that the incident command system used in fighting wildfires and other major emergencies be used on all search and rescue missions. Though, as some local loggers and firefighters can attest, that command structure has its own flaws, it’s better than what officials in Southern Oregon appeared to have had during the search for Kim – no structure at all.

We don’t think anyone would argue that we don’t want our public agencies to work together. We all definitely want lost people to be found. If dozens of people are going to turn out to search for someone, we want them communicating and responding in an organized manner.

But Kim’s death was the result of a complicated set of events that included many errors by himself and others. Common sense should have told him that to try to drive up a snowy road wasn’t a good idea in the first place, no matter what his map or GPS system said.

It is understandable that he was frustrated by the fact that his family had been stuck in the snow for several days, but Kim should have abided by one important rule of survival: Stay with your vehicle no matter what.

Better coordination and communication might have saved Kim’s life, and those problems need to be addressed simply because inter-agency bullheadedness is not what we pay taxes for.

But closing off snowy logging roads so city folks don’t drive down them in the winter time, changing laws, performing endless reviews and investigations, and pointing fingers are really only band-aid solutions. When people make mistakes, they sometimes pay for them and that’s really what happened here.

It’s time for the state to pick up the pieces, perhaps learn a lesson or two, and move on.

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