'20/20' Exclusive: Kati Kim on Her Family's Harrowing Ordeal

In "20/20" exclusive, mom shares story of being stranded with kids in mountains.

February 10, 2011, 12:28 PM

Feb. 11, 2011 — -- It was a story that touched everyday Americans and prompted the biggest search-and-rescue mission in Oregon's history: The disappearance of the Kim family.

The Kims went missing on Thanksgiving 2006. Husband James, wife Kati and their two young daughters, Sabine and Penelope, had been on a road trip when a wrong turn left them desperately lost in the Oregon wilderness.

"Sabine is seven months old and Penelope is four, so we're just really worried about the kids," James Kim's sister, Eva Kim, told the media at the time.

Watch a special two-hour episode of "20/20" tonight at an earlier time, 9 p.m. ET for more on Kim's story.

After nine days, the Kims' car was spotted from the air. But for the family that had captivated the nation, it was no happy ending.

In an exclusive television interview with "20/20", Kati Kim recounted her family's harrowing ordeal.

Kati Kim was a 21-year-old student in Seattle when she met James Kim, 26.

"I took a road trip to Northern California with some college friends and it was then that I met James," she said. "He was the cutest thing I'd ever seen in my entire life. We got matching tattoos and that was pretty much how we met. We were inseparable after that."

The couple married in Las Vegas in 1999 and later had two daughters.

Michael Burke, a friend, said they were very happy.

"They were always looking to do something better, to be something better," he said. "They had dreams. They had lots of big dreams, and they were very proactive in making those dreams come true."

James Kim worked as a technology reporter for CNET while Kati Kim managed two small shops in San Francisco. For family vacations, the Kims liked to hit the road.

"We were always going on road trips with the girls," Kati Kim said. "We tried to just include them in everything that we did."

Just before Thanksgiving, 2006, the Kims decided to go on a holiday road trip together.

The Kims left San Francisco on Friday, Nov. 17, and headed north.

"We had been considering moving out of San Francisco for a long time and both Portland and Seattle were options," Kati Kim said.

But, she added, the main motivation for the trip "was to spend Thanksgiving with family."

The Kims did just that, spending a happy holiday with family and friends in Seattle, including Michael Burke.

"We had a great time. Everyone was happy," Burke said. "They looked a little tired from travelling but they had plans for the rest of their trip and then continued down [highway] I-5 to Gold Beach."

The Last Supper

Facing a five-hour drive to Gold Beach, 140 miles away on the Oregon coast, the Kims stopped at a Dennys in Roseburg, Ore.

"James wanted to order french fries and I told him no, because we had been eating travelling food for so long," Kati Kim said. "And so I made him order a side of steamed vegetables instead of the french fries."

Little did the Kims know at the time, it would be their last supper together. (CLICK HERE to see photos.)

After dinner was behind them, the Kims got back on the road, with James Kim behind the wheel and Kati Kim playing the role of navigator.

Driving into the night, the Kims made the first of several fateful errors. To get to Gold Beach, they needed to take Route 42 via exit 119. They missed it.

One mistake turned into two: Instead of turning around, the couple decides to take another road that Kati Kim spotted on a map.

"We felt like we had gone too far past our turn to turn around," she said. "According to the map, there was a very clear-cut route to the coast."

Unbeknownst to the Kims, they had chosen a remote and notorious cross-country path called Bear Camp Road. At its highest, the road's elevation is between 4,000 and 4,500 feet. It is not maintained and it doesn't get plowed, according to Sarah Rubrecht, a search-and-rescue coordinator.

"Bear Camp Road is infamous for people who don't know the area to take in the wintertime and get stuck," she said.

Believing they would hit the coast soon, Kati Kim fell asleep. An hour later, she said, she woke up to a worrisome sight.

"We were driving very slowly, and it was then that I realized that we were on some mountain roads," she said.

"I said 'James, this isn't right. We've been driving for a really long time already. Did we miss a turn?' and he said, 'No, I don't think so,'" she said.

However, amid the snow, James Kim had missed a turn: At a fork in the road, he failed to see a sign for Gold Beach and chose to head right. He chose wrong.

Believing he was on the road to the coast, he had, in fact, turned on to a logging track. And for reasons that may remain forever unknown, a steel gate that should have been locked, blocking this path, was left open.

Stranded in the Mountains

Utterly lost, the Kims tried using their cell phones to call for help, but they found they had no service. James Kim decided to put the car in reverse easing his way to a lower elevation where there might be more of a signal.

"He opened his door so that he could see better the side," Kati Kim said. "There was a huge drop on one side of it -- huge -- and it was night time so we couldn't tell how far the drop was. ... It was terrifying."

Eventually, they stopped the car at a fork in the road where, she said, "at least we were on solid ground."

With their gas gauge and the snow falling, the Kims decide the safest thing to do was wait for daylight. They survived the bitter night by idling their engine to keep warm. The next day, they ate food that they had brought with them, as they studied their maps and waited for help.

"We were just waiting to get found, at that point, and we were certain somebody was gonna come find us," Kati Kim said.

No one came.

The family spent their second night huddled together in the back of their Saab, where James Kim had folded the seats down to make room.

They listened to the radio, which brought foreboding news: Storms were passing through the area. The Kims also had another worry: black bears.

"I remember seeing bears out there," Kati Kim said. "I remember seeing bears that looked like they were scaling a mountain going straight down a cliff.

"I got the baby out of her seat and I zipped her up into my sweater," she said. "I knew that bears are scared of loud noises. We were repeatedly honking the horn, honking the horn all night...We were scared to death!"

The following day, Kati Kim left a note explaining the family's situation on a nearby loggers' gate while James Kim hoped to draw attention to the family by writing S.O.S. in the snow in large letters.

"We were in this big clearing," she said. "We thought there was a good chance that a helicopter or an airplane would fly overhead and be able to see that." Kati said.

But no one did.

The couple worried about tiny Sabine and Penelope, who was tired, cold and wanted a hot meal. By the third day, Kati Kim decided to breastfeed both her children.

"That was a big turning point for James," she said, "as he was concerned about me getting enough food because he knew that I needed to have enough energy to breast feed both of the children."

By the fifth day, the gas had run out and, along with it, the heat. Sabine had stopped smiling, Kati Kim said, and her cries became "very sad and thin."

By the time nightfall arrived, the whole family was suffering from frostbite and feared the onset of hypothermia -- frostbite's deadly twin -- where basic human existence freezes.

Their Darkest Moment

The following day, James Kim, frantic to save his family, had an idea -- to build a fire and send smoke signals skyward.

It took burning all four of their car's tires along with Sabine's stuffed lamb toy -- James Kim called it a "sacrificial lamb" -- to build a fire large enough to send smoke above the tree line.

That small achievement made the couple feel triumphant at first -- but the feeling didn't last.

Terrified for her children, Kati Kim asked her husband to make a desperate pledge.

"I made him promise me that if anything happened to the children and if they died," she said, "that he would take his pocket knife, and he would slit my wrists, and he would lie us all out in the snow together."

By the seventh day, knowing his family could not survive much longer, James Kim chose the only path he believed was left -- he left the car to go in search of help.

What the Kims didn't know was that their story had captured the hearts and fears of the nation. They were completely unaware a massive search already had begun. In addition to search-and-rescue volunteers, James Kim's father, a wealthy owner of an international aerospace company, had commissioned three helicopters from Carson Helicopters Service Inc. and a search team of 25 people.

Meanwhile, two cell phone engineers in Medford, Ore. offered to help locate the Kims by tracing their cell phones and, despite several obstacles, eventually managed to help rescuers narrow their search.

By the ninth day, part-time helicopter pilot John Rachor, who had begun his own search for the family, spotted the Kims' car. He radioed for help and within minutes, more helicopters arrived at the site. There they found Kati Kim and her daughters Penelope and Sabine, suffering from frostbite and near starvation, but alive. But Kati was shattered when she learned that James had not yet been found.

"We went from this emotional high to this devastating low of, 'We've only got three; we need four,'" said Joe Rice, operations manager for Carson Helicopters.

Watch a special two-hour episode of "20/20" tonight at an earlier time, 9 p.m. ET for more on Kim's story.

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