New Details Emerge in San Francisco Airliner Crash

July 28, 2013
The two firefighters who were operating the crash truck told investigators when they spotted the teen, who was not covered in foam.

July 28--Two San Francisco firefighters battling flames after the crash of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 spotted a teenage passenger on the ground and pointed her out to a supervisor, who mistakenly concluded she was dead -- setting in motion events that ended with the girl being fatally struck by a fire truck, The Chronicle has learned.

Ye Meng Yuan, a 16-year-old student from China, was sitting in the back of the plane when it slammed into a seawall short of the runway at San Francisco International Airport on July 6, breaking off the tail of the Boeing 777. At some point within the next 50 minutes, she ended up on the ground in front of the plane's left wing.

It still isn't clear how she got there, said Fire Department sources and others involved in the investigation -- though speculation is that someone carried her out the open back of the plane and set her down.

Once there, she was spotted by two firefighters assigned to Station 1, one of three Fire Department stations at the airport, said the sources, speaking on condition they not be identified because they were not authorized to discuss the probe publicly.

Ye was in the fetal position, the two firefighters later told investigators.

Not covered with foam

The two firefighters were operating a fire rig called Rescue 10, one of the 4,500-gallon-capacity vehicles that sprayed fire-retardant foam on the burning plane. The two, Roger Phillips and Jimmy Yee, told investigators that when they spotted her, Ye was wearing her yellow school uniform top and blue jeans and was not covered in foam.

Phillips, the spotter for Rescue 10, got off the fire truck and directed Yee around the girl as the rig was repositioning to a better firefighting position, sources said. Phillips and Yee also alerted supervisors that the girl was there, the sources said.

Lt. Christine Emmons, who is assigned to Station 2 at the airport, looked at the girl and concluded she was dead, the sources said. At least one other firefighter did the same, they said.

Emmons appeared a news conference two days after the crash at which first responders discussed how they had pulled at least four victims from the plane after most passengers had escaped.

She recounted the rescue of a "small person" who was stuck between seats, as well as finding two adults and at least one other person who "was just basically taken out of the plane." It is unclear whether any of those people was Ye.

As conditions got worse, she said, heavy black smoke from the fire began "banking down on us."

'Lucky and blessed'

"I feel very lucky and blessed that we were able to get those people out in that time," she said at the press conference. After she left the plane, she said, she helped take one of the nonambulatory patients to a triage center.

Emmons declined to comment for this story. Efforts to reach Phillips and Yee for comment were unsuccessful.

It is unclear from the sources' account why Emmons and the other firefighter concluded that Ye was dead. Having reached that determination, however, they followed the protocol for handling disaster victims, the sources said.

Firefighters are supposed to rescue survivors first before attending to fatalities, the sources said. Because they decided Ye was dead, Emmons and the other firefighter did not bring her to the triage center that had been established well away from the airplane, the sources said.

Ye, however, was not dead, according to San Mateo County Coroner Robert Foucrault. His office performed an autopsy and determined that the girl was alive until she was run over by another fire truck, which arrived on the scene several minutes later and caused devastating injuries.

Returning from lunch

Police sources say that truck was driven by a veteran firefighter who had returned to her airport station house from buying lunch to find that all her colleagues had gone to the crash scene.

The firefighter jumped into Engine 37, a reserve rig that, unlike other foam-spraying trucks, had not been equipped with sensor equipment that could detect an object such as a human body.

By the time the firefighter arrived in Engine 37, Ye had been covered in fire-retardant foam, investigators say. Unable to see the girl from a rig with poor ground visibility, and with no equipment onboard to warn her the girl might be under the foam, the firefighter ran over Ye and killed her, the sources said.

A helmet-camera video shot by a battalion chief and handed over to investigators shows a firefighter pointing to tracks through the foam and calling out, "I've got a body over here," according to sources who have seen it.

The battalion chief's video -- turned over to police and fire investigators a couple of days after the crash -- is how authorities later identified Engine 37 as the rig that hit the girl, investigators said.

No testing

Crews on other fire trucks that responded to the scene were tested for alcohol and drug use after Ye's body was discovered, Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White said. However, the driver of the rig that struck the girl was not tested, because officials were unaware until the video emerged that she had been at the scene, sources say.

The circumstances of Ye's death are under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board and the police hit-and-run detail, as well as the Fire Department.

Hayes-White declined to comment on the sources' account of how Ye died, pending the outcome of those investigations. When Foucrault announced his autopsy findings July 19, Hayes-White called Ye's death a "tragic accident."

Anthony Tarricone, one of the lawyers hired by Ye's family, said the new information "raises very serious questions about what happened that day."

"Inevitably, the truth will come out, but even now it's apparent that there were multiple failures by the Fire Department that resulted in the death of this young girl," Tarricone said.

"Having survived the crash, they failed to protect her, they failed to take her out of harm's way," he said. "They left her in harm's way, and the end result was that she suffered a tragic and horrible death."

Jaxon Van Derbeken is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: [email protected]

Copyright 2013 - San Francisco Chronicle

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