Sunday, December 10, 2006

Thoughts on James Kim's death

Like most tech people, I follow cNet and was aware early on about James Kim being missing. Now that the tragedy has unfolded, my first thoughts on this were how a small mistake, bad decisions, and one piece of bad luck lead to this tragedy. My background on this is that I went to college in northern California (CSU Sonoma) and made several weekend trips to the California/Oregon border. I don't know the area where all of this occurred, but if it is anything like where I was, the roads are mostly one lane affairs, with 60-100+ foot trees on both sides of the road. Unless you have a very detailed map, getting lost on a clear day is an easy thing to do. I don’t know what type of maps or mapping system he used or had available, but I have to assume that he used something to find this alternate route either in real time or before leaving on the trip. I have put a number of links to Yahoo maps in this so you can follow my thoughts.

On reading the report in today's paper my thought was, ok he missed his turn off from I-5 to route 42 and made his first bad decision to "take an alternate route" instead of back tracking to 42 and following the plan. I first checked a straight run from Seattle WA to the Tu Tu Tun Lodge and found it is a 471 mile trip of 8 and 3/4 hours for an average speed of 54 MPH, a long day by itself with 2 young children in a car. Add in a stop at a friends house in Portland (guess an hour minimum), and a dinner stop and you now have at least a 10 hour travel day, long but doable. But I noticed that Yahoo recommended OR-38 as the cutover from I-5 to 101, not 42. I checked Google maps and Mapquest and neither recommended OR-42. So I added a stop in Denny’s in Rodeburg and ended up with a 487 mile trip in just over 8 and 3/4 hours, so OR-38 and OR-42 are probably comparable in quality. The article also mentioned they were leaving the Denny’s at 8 PM, yet the mapping shows they still had over 137 miles and 3 and a half hours to go, so they would have arrived at the hotel at close to midnight. I have to wonder if they planned on arriving this late or if the day had gotten away from them (if someone asks, I’ll do a short explanation how this was the first issue in the chain that caused JFK jr’s death) and had they been paying attention to the weather and factored this into their plans. You have to ask yourself, do you really want to take your wife and two children out on a 3 and a half hour trip listed as 40 MPH in good weather when it is after sundown and raining/sleeting/snowing?? For me this is really their first bad decision because the trip would have been at least 4 and a half hours with the weather and they would be arriving well after 1 in the morning. Now I am assuming that they new the travel times involved, but I know when I’m traveling with children I know the length of time they can stand at a stretch and the travel times involved. This is one of those times when hindsight really is easy, and their are a number of questions I don’t have the answers to. Among them are, what was the weather like in Roseburg after their dinner (it is in a valley to the east of the hills and the weather was moving west to east, so it could be snowing on the west side of the mountains and simply overcast in Roseburg). If the weather was bad, how tight was their travel schedule and did they think they had the spare time to stay the night in Roseburg then travel over the mountains the next morning or did they feel they needed to "push" to keep to the schedule. I am assuming here that they wanted to finish their drive down the coast on 101 to San Francisco as it is very beautiful. I doubt we will ever know the answers to most of these questions.

From here, their mistake is repoted as “missing the turnoff onto OR-42”. But on checking this out as reported, it does not make any sense to me because he missed his turnout by about 58 miles! The exit for 42 was probably 4 miles south of where they had dinner, yet “[j]ust north of Grants Pass, they decided to try an alternate route”. This route starts 58 miles south of the OR-42 exit, so you have to ask is this bad reporting, sympathetic reporting (just another name for bad), or a deliberate decision to take a back route. I can not believe they went a full hour past their turnout before realizing it and turning back. Why they would deliberately choose this route is beyond me, it saves no time and no miles. The only thing that sort of makes sense is that it does lead to the road that the lodge is on. This would be they type of decision a navigation system with a poor quality of data (not recommending the better road) might make. It could also be a decision someone would make based on a map showing the back roads who was not fully aware of how bad they can be and also not cognizant of the weather. Either way, this is the road the ended up on. From there, the bad decisions continued. It has been stated that they saw the signs that the road may be blocked due to snow, but ignored them. Again, you have to ask how much time pressure they were under at this point (figure an hour and a half to back track to Roseburg then 4+ to the lodge). Also, could they have overnighted in one of the small towns on I-5 then made for the coast in the morning? At some point it is reported that James had to “stick his head out the window to see where they were going”. Again, when do you make the decision to turn back? Then they hit their spot of bad luck, with the gate being open on the entrance to the BLM road. This gate should have been shut and padlocked closed for the winter, but the padlock had been cut and the gate opened. This was done by either “vandals” as reported or someone incredibly stupid, because if you wanted access to the road and did not want to be disturbed, you would close the gate behind you. Either way they ended up lost on a twisty warren of roads that the authorities though access had been closed to. The next to last bad decision was to stop in a spot they “thought” could be seen from the air. At night in the back country with rain falling, there is no clear way to know how visible a spot is from the air. Also James “who had outdoor experience” should have known that the snow level continues to fall all night and what is rain at 2 am could well be snow before morning. In the morning they awoke to find their car snowed in. At this point, they had lost control of their own destiny and their survival became dependent on other people. It is reported that they had cell phones, which (even without a running engine) should have been chargeable with a car charger. Their best option at this point was to bring help to themselves by following the roads up hill until a cell signal could be found. Unfortunatly, Kim’s final bad decision was to leave the roads and cut cross country without a complete certainty in his current location and destination. It is a simple fact that even a cell phone’s radio signal can go much farther than a person can walk given their clothing and the weather conditions.

I do wish to express my condolences to the Kim family, they have lost a husband and father and must now continue on without him. I know their pain well.


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