Parents of Son Killed By Tree in Yosemite Create Classical Music Foundation in His Name

Two months after his son was killed by a fallen tree branch while camping in Yosemite, the 14-year-old’s father said “our sorrow overwhelms us.” But he and his wife are trying to work through their grief by creating a classical music program to honor the spirit of their first-born.

“The number of tears we’ve both shed — we can’t even count,” Daniel Kim said in an interview with NBC — the first time he and his wife Grace have spoken publicly since their son Dragon’s death. “We think we’ve shed them all until there’s another torrent of crying.”

Tree Branch Fell in Yosemite

Camping at Yosemite for the Kim family, like many in California, had been a summertime ritual. But their trip to the national park in the Sierra Nevada, a five-hour drive from their Orange County home, ended in tragedy just before 5 a.m. on Aug. 14.

A tree branch cracked and fell on the tent where Dragon was sleeping with his friend, crushing the two 14-year-olds to death. 

Grace and Daniel Kim
From left to right: Grace, Hannah, Dragon and Daniel Kim of Orange County sit on ledge at Yosemite National Park on Aug. 13, 2015 the day before a tree branch fell on Dragon's tent, killing him and his friend, Justin Lee.

The Dragon Kim Foundation

Grace Kim, a Stanford business graduate and former Yahoo brand manager, and Daniel Kim, an investment banker, created the nonprofit Dragon Kim Foundation. They hope to raise between $500,000 and $1 million to buy 100 students classical music instruments, and pay for their lessons, at Camp Orange County School of the Arts, where Dragon would have been a junior this year. If all goes well, the Kims hope to roll out their foundation model to other schools in California, and possibly even nationwide.

Aside from playing water polo, showing a fierce aptitude for economics and physics, as well as earning two black belts in Tae Kwon Do, Dragon played 10 instruments: piano, trumpet, alto sax, trombone, bass trombone, tenor sax, baritone, tuba, guitar and clarinet.

Grace and Daniel Kim
Dragon Kim, 14, of Orange County plays trombone, and plays goalie for Northwood Water polo, both in 2015.

Earlier this year, Dragon and some friends had noticed that his school’s afterschool program gave free lessons to elementary school students in theater and writing but nothing in classical music. He had been talking with his school’s dean of arts conservatories, Teren Shaffer, to change that. But Dragon died before his idea could materialize.

“It feels like a logical place to start,” Grace Kim said. “To be able to make his vision come true.”

Shaffer is working hard with the Kims. He’s hosting a concert on Oct. 27 to honor Dragon’s memory and raise money for the foundation, which also aims to foster children's passions in academics, arts and athletics.

“It’s not every day that a student comes to you and wants to start a new program to benefit other students,” Shaffer said. “It’s an incredible idea.”

Dragon’s Sixth Trip to Yosemite

This was Dragon Kim’s sixth family trip to Yosemite. But it was the first year that Dragon – named by his parents in the auspicious Year the Golden Dragon – had brought a friend along to camp. And it was the first year that he and his buddy, Justin Lee of Irvine, slept in their own tents.

“It was supposed to be the last hurrah of the summer,” Daniel Kim said. “We were visiting a place we have loved. Yosemite is a sacred spot we have gone every year.”

Grace and Daniel Kim
Justin Lee, 14, of Irvine (left) and Dragon Kim, 14, of Tustin stand arm in arm at Yosemite National Park on Aug. 13, 2015, the day before a tree branch fell and killed them both.

After arriving on Thursday afternoon, the family set up tent, met friends at Curry Village and fired up a BBQ. “We were looking forward to a morning hike at Vernal Falls,” Daniel Kim said. “Then we were going to go to Cathedral Beach for a lazy afternoon, hanging out by the water.”

Oak Tree Limb Crashed Onto Boys' Tent

But none of that happened.

Before the sun came up, the Kims heard a big “thunder-like” crack,” Daniel Kim said. The limb of a large oak tree fell on the boys’ tent in the Upper Pines campground, 10 feet away from the Kim parents, and their 13-year- old daughter, Hannah.

It’s unclear why the limb fell, though U.S. Forest Service scientists have noted an uptick of dead and decaying trees because of California’s persistent drought.

Grace Kim said neighboring families heard the loud noise. They ran to help with flashlights and called 911. Paramedics came. But it was too late.

Both the Kims and the Lee family – who have requested privacy – marked the somber two-month anniversary of their sons last week by visiting their grave sites.

Dragon's Memory to Live On

Though her son is no longer with her, Grace Kim is hoping that by devoting herself to one of her son’s many passions, she can keep his spirit alive.

Grace and Daniel Kim
Dragon Kim, named in 2000 in the Year of the Dragon, 14, of Tustin, Orange County was killed Aug. 14, 2015 when a tree limb in Yosemite fell on his tent.

“It was a privilege to be his mom,” Grace Kim said. “It’s a way for his name to live on. And it’s a way to help other children in a way that Justin and Dragon were not allowed to because their lives were cut so short.”

If you’re interested in learning more about or contributing to the Dragon Kim Foundation, click here.

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