First responders today recounted the chaotic scene they encountered at San Francisco International Airport on Saturday after the deadly crash of Asiana Airlines Flight 214.
San Francisco Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White, who joined several other firefighters, police officers and medics for a news conference at the airport today, said the scene “was not something many people would see in their careers.”
Two passengers died following the crash and more than 180 others were injured.
Hayes-White said investigators are still looking into the possibility that one of the two 16-year-old girls who died was struck by a San Francisco emergency vehicle.
However, the fire chief lauded the bravery of her firefighters and other first responders, many of whom went onto the burning Boeing 777 to rescue passengers.
Lt. Christine Emmons was one of those firefighters and said she knew the incident was serious from the moment she got the call from a dispatcher.
“I knew from her voice that the event we were going to was real,” Emmons said.
She said her adrenaline was flowing as she arrived at smoldering wreckage and followed another firefighter up an inflatable emergency chute and into the fuselage.
Emmons said there were several passengers in the back, including an elderly person and someone who was caught between the seats.
As the passengers were assisted off the plane—including some through the back, where the tail had broken off—the fire intensified, Emmons said.
“By the time we removed everyone, heavy smoke was banking down on us,” she said. “I feel lucky and blessed that we were able to get people out in time.”
San Francisco police Lt. Gaetano Caltagirone said the scene was noticeably quiet despite the dangerous situation facing the first responders.
“Everyone was doing what they were trained to do, save lives,” he said.
San Francisco police Officer Jim Cunningham was singled out by police Chief Greg Suhr for his bravery in running into the plane without any respiratory equipment.
“Just ‘wow’ is the only word that keeps popping up in my mind,” Suhr said.
Cunningham said after hearing the report of the crash on his radio, he stopped an ambulance and told its driver to follow him.
He said his memories of the scene were still somewhat of a blur.
“I didn’t think about it, I just thought people were in there and needed help,” he said.
In the midst of the chaos, Cunningham even had the presence of mind to pick up an iPhone that was sitting on a seat in the plane. He also found another phone on the ground outside of the wreckage that appeared to belong to an Asiana Airlines stewardess.
Caltagirone said many officers were emotional after the rescue operation.
“We’re all human beings … we all feel the emotion,” he said. “We just witnessed something very incredible and scary out there.”
He said it was important for the first responders and survivors of the crash to tell their stories as part of the coping process.
“If you don’t talk, you’re hurting yourself,” he said.
As for whether an emergency vehicle may have been what struck and killed one of the two girls, that aspect is being investigated by San Francisco police, the National Transportation Safety Board and the San Mateo County coroner, said San Francisco Assistant Deputy Fire Chief Dale Carnes.
The fire department is also doing its own internal investigation, according to Carnes, who said authorities could not immediately say anything else about the incident.
“We’re trying to clearly establish the facts,” he said. “Anything we said would simply be conjecture.”
NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said at a separate news conference today that her agency is also looking closely at that incident as part of the investigation.
“It’s a very serious issue and we want to understand it,” Hersman said, noting that initial review of video from the scene was not conclusive about what happened so her agency is continuing to interview first responders at the scene.
She added that “the coroner has not yet determined the cause of death so we want to make sure we have all the facts before we reach any conclusions.”
The NTSB has tentatively scheduled its next briefing on the crash for Tuesday.
Dan McMenamin, Bay City News