December 18, 2006 12:00 PM

From a helicopter over the peaks of the Oregon Coast Range, rescuers suddenly saw what they had been praying for. Below, on Dec. 4, was Kati Kim, 30, waving an open umbrella on which she had affixed reflective tape spelling out SOS. For nine days Kim and her husband, James, 35, had been missing in the wilderness area with their two daughters, Penelope, 4, and Sabine, 7 months, after their car got stuck in the snow while the family was on a trip from their home in San Francisco. Authorities had finally managed to zero in on their whereabouts by tracking Kim’s unsuccessful attempts to call for help on her cell phone. “The fact that they were found is miraculous,” said an elated Angela Martin, an inspector with the San Francisco police. “She was that smart to save her babies and herself.”

Unfortunately James Kim was not on hand to share in the joy. Two days earlier, with the family out of food and no longer any way to keep warm at night when temperatures dropped to the mid-20s, he evidently sensed it was do or die. Dressed in a jacket, two pairs of pants, sweater and sneakers, Kim had set off to seek help for his loved ones—and hadn’t been seen since. With Kati and her two daughters recovering well, the focus the family turned to James, a senior editor at the Web site CNET, where he reviewed the newest electronic gadgets. “I’m incredibly worried and incredibly concerned,” Kati’s father, Dr. Philip Fleming, said on the Today show. “He’s a very heroic father.” As PEOPLE went to press on Dec. 5, his fate was unknown.

Certainly the couple showed considerable resourcefulness and grit. Over the course of the nine days, Kati breast fed both girls; Kati’s father told Today that “James was not consuming food and allowing it to go to the children”—which apparently left him weakened. He also did everything he could to ease the psychological burden on his family. “James set up camp for them, just like it was a camping trip for them, to help them get through it,” Kati’s mom, Sandy, told Good Morning America. “They had the store of things that they would normally have for the girls … bottled water, blankets.” Says James’s friend Jason Zemlicka: “He’s an insanely dedicated father and husband. He’s strong in tough situations—he’ll do whatever he can to make you feel better.”

There was no denying the dangers Kim faced. An experienced camper, he had embarked on his mission with no hat and, for warmth or signaling, two lighters. On Dec. 5 searchers made a disturbing find: a pair of discarded pants that James was last seen wearing, though officials noted that he still had another pair. Trackers had followed his footprints in the snow into the Big Windy Creek drainage area. A dozen teams of two or three men took turns scouring the vicinity, but the going was slow and treacherous.

The Kims of course had not been looking for adventure when they set off on their journey. After spending Thanksgiving with family in Seattle they had planned to make their way back down to San Francisco with a stop-over at a lodge in Gold Beach, Ore. On the evening of Nov. 25 they had a late dinner at a Denny’s restaurant in Roseburg, Ore. Outside, a fierce coastal storm was raging.

Around 9 p.m. they left the restaurant and drove south on Interstate 5 to Grants Pass. Kati later told a detective that they had missed a turn-off to the main highway leading down to the coast and had ended up on Bear Camp Road, a local route that is generally impassible in the winter. “It was a terrible night to drive, rainy and dark,” says Karen Smith, who was at the restaurant and complimented the Kims on how cute their kids were.

How exactly they got stuck is a bit unclear. A friend of Kati’s, who spoke to her after the rescue, told the San Francisco Chronicle that they had tried to take Bear Camp over the mountain range, but had been turned back by heavy snow. Retreating to a lower elevation, where it was raining, they elected to sit it out for the night. But when they awoke the next morning they were snowbound. Over the next three days they used the car’s heater at night to keep warm. When the gas ran out, they used the battery alone. After the battery died, they burned tires to generate heat.

As for food, they had only scant provisions in their 2005 Saab station wagon: just some baby food and Cheez Whiz. James ate some berries he found in the wild but quickly stopped out of concern that they might be poisonous. Kati’s mother told NBC that her daughter, who runs two retail businesses in San Francisco—one specializing in clothing, the other in baby and skin-care products—had no wilderness training but possesses a powerful maternal instinct. Said Sandy: “Her concern was with the children.”

After James had gone for help at 7:45 a.m. of Dec. 2, saying he would be back no later than 1 p.m., Kati considered going to look for him when he didn’t show up. But she quickly abandoned the idea. Said her father: “She just felt too weak to carry the two children.” In any event, officials were amazed at how healthy the girls were when they were brought to the hospital. “They did a good job,” said Brian Anderson, undersheriff of Josephine County. “They are in remarkable shape for spending nine days out in the wilderness in this type weather.”

To their friends, the fact that the Kims had managed to pull through for as long as they did came as no surprise. “James is extremely intelligent and he understands nature,” says friend Zemlicka. As the ordeal unfolded, family and friends did everything they could to help, including hiring three private helicopters to join in the search, one of which found Kati and the kids. Friend Scott Nelson Windels set up a tip line and a web site to help in the search. “They’re a wonderful couple,” says Windels, “very much family people.” Which made the waiting on James’s fate all the more agonizing. “He and Kati love each other so much it’s inspiring,” says Zemlicka. “He would do anything for his family.”

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