Sunday, December 10, 2006

Tragedy and the Kindness of Strangers

If you are in the United States, you may have heard about James Kim earlier this week. On a family roadtrip, he took a wrong turn onto an isolated mountain road in Oregon.

It was an ordinary mistake. It became tragic when the family’s car got stuck amid heavy snow. His wife, Kati, and their two children were rescued nine days later near the car, which they had used for shelter.

However, on day seven, with supplies and hope dwindling, James had set out on foot for help. Before succumbing to the elements, he covered more than ten miles of snow-covered mountain wilderness, with little food or protection, searching for the searchers.

NPR’s Scott Simon eloquently captured what a lot of people felt:

So much of modern popular culture depicts parents who are goofy, foolish, clueless and slightly pathetic. [Yet] almost every parent is certain they would risk their life for those they love; James Kim actually made that sacrifice.

In the days before Kati and the children were rescued, the search for the Kims generated a groundswell of media attention, first local then national. It was a primal human drama, magnified by the involvement of the children, four-year-old Penelope and seven-month-old Sabine.

They all could have died. Among the reasons Kati, Penelope, and Sabine were rescued was a primal response from far-flung strangers, people with no reason to be involved other than an instinct to help: the phone company engineer who on his own time combed through cell-phone network data to narrow-down the area for rescuers to search; the amateur helicopter pilot, unrelated to the official search effort, who spotted Kati from the air, who “went up because he had a hunch, and because a newspaper picture of the girls reminded him of his own grandkids.” (San Francisco Chronicle)

As for the official search effort, the San Jose Mercury News tell us that 95% of search teams are volunteers, people ready to take a middle-of-the-night call to wherever, for whomever. They did so for days on end.

And finally, for those people far from the scene, whose only connection to the story was the story, there were kind words—of support, prayer, and later, condolence. James’ employer, CNET, received thousands of such emails and postings.

In the aftermath, various anonymous people left flowers at the front of CNET. A baker from South San Francisco dropped off a bunch of pastries that he made, because that’s what he could do.

So while one man fought for his family’s survival, thousands of people reached out to help. Many were friends, colleagues, and relatives of the Kims. Many more were strangers.

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