C|Net editor James Kim and his family were only the most recent people in the United States to go missing, causing grief for their loved ones and spurring search parties made up mostly of volunteers and strangers into action. Some become lost in the wild, while others are the victims of accidents that can leave them stranded in harsh climates. Not all will be found alive; many will not be found at all.
I could do the research and recite the cold statistics of mothers, fathers, sons and daughters that go missing every single day, but it would never do justice to those who have lost their friends and family. Hundreds certainly, perhaps even more.
It isn't often that a missing person makes the national news and captures the attention of an entire nation. For a while it seemed as if any young white female would trigger a media frenzy, but then it began to taper off. Aruba overload, I suppose.
Those that you don't hear about are often the most heart breaking. While James Kim succumbed to the elements in a valiant attempt to save his family, they ultimately survived their ordeal. It's sad that his children will grow up knowing little to nothing of their father, yet people can find some amount of comfort in knowing they will get the chance to grow up and see the world for themselves.
It could have been worse for the Kim family, and for many, it is.
In early September in the foothills of North Carolina, the dangers weren't snow and cold, but youth and swollen rivers due to recent thunderstorms. The terrain is rugged with valleys, exposed rock, and defense forest. It can be very warm, even well into November; perfect for kids who love to explore.
It wasn't long before news came that two little boys, aged three and four, went missing just 10 minutes from where I live. The roadway is well traveled and their home just a short distance from a gas station, a restaurant, and an auto shop. Three feet off the side of the road between the auto shop and gas station drops off into dense brush and trees, and anywhere you look, all you can see are trees and the bush.
The two boys had gotten away from their grandfather by scooting out an open window in the rear of the home. He gave chase, but lost them quickly in the woods. It wasn't long before the police and fire department were organizing searches. Dogs trained to follow the scent of a human being tracked the boys to the edge of the Dan River, but lost them there.
The Dan isn't a large river, perhaps no wider than thirty to fifty feet across in places, something you can wade across if you pick your place wisely -- but that's on a normal day. When strong thunderstorms come through the mountains, the river can swell wildly as water makes its way from the mountains down into the foothills. Just such a storm had passed through a day or two before the boys went missing.
The terrain is rough, but people from all over the county volunteered to form search parties that went out every day and into the evening. Police and FD rescue went up and down the river in boats while groups of ten or more people began a grid search all around the home where they went missing.
The days were warm, but the nights were cold when the sky was clear. I would stand in my backyard and try to imagine what would be going through my mind if I were the kids, knowing I would have to survive outside in the pitch black woods with temperatures in the 40's, wearing just tee-shirts and shorts. Then I tried to imagine how a three and four year old would deal with the situation, given their limited ability to understand yet vast ability to imagine and channel strong emotions on a moments notice.
My nephews though only a year and some change apart in age have remarkably different capabilities when it comes to survival. The elder of the two would know that if he was thirsty, he could drink water from the river. At least that's what I told myself. The three-year-old probably would not. Would the older one help the younger one, or would they end up split up?
Kids that age, especially brothers, can go from sweethearts playing happily together to insanely brutal fights that sound much like the end of the world. Would they cooperate? Would either of them understand what was going on? The young one couldn't hardly talk intelligibly, at least not in a way I could understand. He couldn't even communicate what he was thinking most of the time.
Being able to identify with the situation because of having nephews made it extremely hard not to think about it, and be horrified. The truth was, if they weren't found within three days, they probably wouldn't survive.
Days passed and more people kept coming. SWAT teams from adjoining counties and cities would come in with their big trucks full of gear to join the search. At one point, I spoke with my mother and found out one late afternoon that she had just gotten back from participating in two different searches that day. I had no idea, she never told me, so I suppose it was an impulse reaction. Those two nephews of mine surely grated on her mind as much as they did my own.
I suddenly felt like the biggest jerk in the world for not joining that search from day one. The truth is it just never occurred to me. I've never in my life done anything like that, and frankly this was the first time I had ever been anywhere near something like this.
This was probably four days into the search and there wasn't much hope of finding these boys alive, but once my brain kicked into gear, I knew what I had to do. The search would be called off for the night in a few hours, so it was best to prepare for the morning.
I fetched a backpack from my closet and began laying out supplies. I am no survival expert, but I've learned a few things over the years and I knew what I wanted to have with me if I was going into the bush. Here is a list of what I was going to take.
Four bottles of water in my pack plus three more in my car. Rain coat, the forecast was rain and fog for the morning. Gloves. A sweater for warmth that could be easily discarded later.
In water-proof giant ziplock bags: A full lighter. One pocket knife, one buck knife. Compact binoculars. Two compasses. Two flashlights, in case of caves. Extra batteries. Handheld GPRS/FRS radio with five-mile range.
For the worst case scenario, I took along a digital camera for documentation and identification. I also took along a ziplock bag large enough to hold a map I was told I would receive when I joined a search group, which I supplemented with my own printed map which I studied overnight.
My intention was not to become a liability should I myself become lost. I had everything I needed to navigate and survive, packed and ready to go, all I had to do was wait.
I didn't make it out for the morning search unfortunately, and was going to leave in the afternoon instead, but that chance never came. The boys bodies were found miles down river that afternoon. My pack in hand, I now felt even worse than before.
The boys had likely died the day they disappeared, drowned in the rain-swollen river and washed downstream much further than anyone was searching on foot. A person in a kayak had found them almost in another county.
There was nothing I nor anyone else could have done. Though they were missing, they were never lost in the typical sense, but they are lost now to their parents.
People disappear all the time for different reasons, and some are never found. For James Kim, for J.W. and Jacob White, and for all the others who will never come home, I mourn them and grieve for their family and friends.
The most any of us can do is act smartly and encourage others to do the same. If you have kids, know where they like to go when they get away from you. Never let them out of your sight if you can manage it.
If you are going on a trip, tell someone where you are going, when you expect to be there, and what route you will take. Make sure they know what to do if you don't show up.
If you ever go on a search yourself, be prepared so that you won't become lost to the world yourself. Act smartly so that this never happens to you or somebody you know.
Mourn the missing; mourn the lost.
A map of the area can be found here. They went missing on Hicks Farm Road, and the blue markers indicate where their bodies were recovered.
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