Official confirmed Friday that one of the victims of the Asiana Airlines crash died after being run over by a rescue vehicle.
San Mateo County Coroner Robert J. Foucrault said Friday that a 16-year-old Chinese girl was alive on the tarmac at San Francisco International Airport when she was struck by the vehicle July 6. She suffered crushing injuries and internal bleeding —”multiple blunt injuries that are consistent with being run over by a motor vehicle.”
“She was alive when she received the injuries,” he said.
San Francisco Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White told reporters that it is believed the girl was struck by an Aircraft Rescue Firefighting truck, known as an ARFF—a specialized vehicle that can run at speeds up to 70 mph and spray fire-retardant foam even while speeding toward a burning plane.
Air-safety experts said they could not remember a case in recent U.S. history of a passenger being fatally struck by rescuers after a crash landing. They said it would require a significant reevaluation of how crews handle crashes.
The experts said rescuers at SFO acted with the best of intentions: Training tells them the most dangerous aspect of a plane crash is the fire and that extinguishing it as quickly as possible should be the top priority.
“The first thing you want to do is get the fire out to protect the victims,” said Tom Wieczorek, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Public Safety Management at the International City/County Management Assn.
Jet fuel burns at 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit, and it will burn through the plane exterior aluminum skin and its fire-retardant insulation within three minutes, said Fred Cnota, commander of the Aircraft Rescue Firefighting unit at Chicago O'Hare International Airport.
“It's a lot of thinking on your feet, and you've got to have eyes in the back of your head. You’re trying to cross runways, and you have to get there fast....before the fire is inside the cabin,” he said. Referring to the passengers, he added: “If you're inside the cabin when it starts burning, you’re dead.”
The Federal Aviation Administration requires that the first crash rig be on the scene within three minutes and the last within four, Cnota said. Many deaths in previous crashes occurred among people who survived the initial landing but died in the subsequent fire.
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 after it crashed.
The San Francisco fire chief said that there was a “blanket” of fire-retardant foam in the area where Ye’s body was found. It is unclear whether the teenager was covered at the time of the incident.
Wieczorek said the Asiana incident shows that officials need to look at the way rescuers approach crash sites and answer the big question: How can you spot a survivor despite all the chaos of burning wreckage, debris all over the airfield and several feet of foam possibly covering people?
“Is it putting infrared devices on a vehicle that may spot a warm body, even if it is covered?” he asked. Or perhaps getting another spotter to help the driver maneuver through the airfield?
Part of the problem is the thickness of the fire extinguishing foam. “It’s almost like a bubble bath … you could easily lose something in the foam blanket,” said Miami International Airport Division Chief Stephen Kilby of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue.
“This is a nightmare,” Kilby said of the situation.
“We realize as the wreckage is scattered, people can unfortunately be scattered as well. We train for things like this, but sometimes, if something like that were to happen, I’m not sure that it’s avoidable,” Kilby said.
Wieczorek said that until recent years, rescuers would not face this issue because planes tended to explode during crash landings. But the development of fire-resistant materials in planes in recent decades has increased the survivability of hard landings like the one at SFO.
Another issue is visibility. Cnota said in his unit, the driver can have difficulty seeing through the ARFF’s sides and rear. He trains drivers to never be in a situation where they have to back up because it can be difficult to see.
Wieczorek, a former fire chief in Michigan, said firefighters at airports train for situations like this, “but nothing prepares you for what you encounter on a scene like this. No matter how hard you train, something is always different.”
The San Francisco fire chief called Ye's death a “tragic accident” and said in a news conference that the incident is still under investigation. Ye was one of three passengers killed. It was not clear how Ye’s body ended up near the plane’s wing, the coroner said, adding that it was “speculative” that she was thrown from the plane. She was on the ground when she was struck by the vehicle.
Hayes-White, surrounded by members of her command staff, said the coroner’s confirmation of Ye’s cause of death was difficult for her department.
“It was very hard to hear,” she said. “Devastating, heartbroken -- there are not a lot of words to describe how badly we feel, how sorry we feel for it.”
Firefighters responding to the crash came upon a “very volatile, dangerous situation,” Hayes-White said.
Debris from the crash was strewn about the runway, and fuel leaked from the plane, she said. When they arrived, the plane was still engulfed in flames, she said.
“It was a difficult, challenging scene,” she said.
The department will evaluate its protocols and see how it can improve its responses to such situations, she said.
“Everyone is very emotional from this incident,” Hayes-White said of her department. “Getting the news yesterday has made it very difficult ... we go to work every day to save lives. Many lives were saved July 6 ... however, I don’t want to take away from the loss of the three lives.”
Hayes-White said her department made a “valiant effort” to save lives. The San Francisco Police Department and National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the incident, she said.
There were numerous emergency vehicles in the area, and neither Hayes-White nor Foucrault would comment on whether Ye was struck by multiple vehicles, saying that that was part of the police investigation.
Hayes-White would not comment on whether the department could face civil or criminal liability for Ye’s death, saying, “I’m not a legal expert.” San Francisco International Airport has four ARFFs. They are each designed to deploy 3,000 to 4,500 gallons of water and foam.
San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee said he was “profoundly saddened by the involvement of a responding emergency vehicle in the death” of Ye. “We deeply mourn the loss of Ye Mengyuan, with her family and friends,” he said.