Confirmation on Friday that one of the victims of the Asiana Airlines crash died after being run over by a rescue vehicle opened a new front into the investigation over what went wrong in the air disaster.
San Francisco County and San Mateo County officials acknowledged Friday that the victim, a 16-year-old Chinese girl, was alive on the tarmac when the vehicle struck her, giving her crushing injuries and internal hemorrhaging.
San Francisco fire chief Joanne Hayes-White told reporters Friday that it is believed the girl was struck by a specialized aircraft rescue firefighting vehicle that can go as fast as 70 mph and spray foam while en route to a plane.
Air safety experts said they could not remember a case in recent U.S. history of a passenger being fatally struck by rescuers and said it will require a significant reevaluation of how crews handle crashes.
The experts said rescuers at San Francisco International Airport acted with the best of intentions: They have been taught that a fire is the most dangerous aspect of a plane crash and that extinguishing it as quickly as possible should be the top priority.
But in this case, many Asiana passengers managed to exit the plane before the fire spread and were walking on the tarmac. It’s unclear how the victim, Ye Mengyuan, got to a space near the left wing of the plane.
Authorities say when she was found, she was covered in foam that was used to put out the fire.
It is unclear whether the teenager was covered in foam at the time of the collision. [Updated, 6:42 p.m.: A San Francisco Police Department spokesman said last week the girl was outside the plane and covered in fire-retardant foam when the fire truck “went over her.”]
Experts said fire engines start spraying foam on the fire even while the vehicles are still moving.
Tom Wieczorek, director of a first-responder training association in Washington, D.C., said the Asiana incident shows that officials need to look at the way rescuers approach crash sites.
Some ideas investigators might consider would to be equip trucks with infrared sensors that could detect body heat or to have spotters help drivers look for victims on the tarmac.
Wieczorek and others said that until recent years, rescuers typically wouldn't encounter survivors on the tarmac because planes tended to explode during crash landings. But the development of fire-resistant materials in planes over the last two decades has increased the survivability of passengers in hard landings like the one at SFO.
"There will be a lot of second-guessing," said Wieczorek, the director for the Center for Public Safety Management at the International City/County Management Assn.
He said that driving a firetruck on the way to a burning plane is very difficult.
"Your responders are being pulled in about 15 different directions. You're looking for victims obviously first. ... You're receiving radio messages and updates and deciding how you're going to position your equipment," he said. "And they're beginning to spray foam designed to smother the fire.
"Everybody will look at it now with the ability to look at it outside of the chaos and say, 'OK, what happened?,' " he continued. "It's always easy to do. It's much more different when you're in the middle of that chaos."
Even with a rethinking of rescue procedures, it's possible that collisions with survivors will still occur, said Stephen Kilby, Miami International Airport division chief at Miami-Dade Fire Rescue.
Hayes-White called the death of Ye a “tragic accident” and said in a news conference that the incident is still under investigation.