San Francisco Chronicle
SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. — A teenage survivor of the Asiana Airlines crash at San Francisco International Airport was run over by not one but two Fire Department rigs after firefighters mistakenly concluded she was dead without checking her vital signs, according to findings of a federal investigation released Wednesday.
The Fire Department had already admitted that one foam-spraying rig ran over 16-year-old Ye Meng Yuan of China as it took part in firefighting efforts after the July 6 crash.
But documents released Wednesday show that a second rig also ran over Ye. That rig's spotter had seen the girl on the ground and directed the driver around her as she lay near the burning Boeing 777's left wing.
The spotter then went to help at the crash site. Fourteen minutes later, that rig was the first to strike the girl, who by then was covered with flame-retardant foam, according to summaries of firefighter interviews released by the National Transportation Safety Board.
Several minutes later, another rig ran over Ye as the driver left to refill her vehicle with water.
The San Mateo County coroner has concluded that Ye was alive before she was struck. However, she appeared to be dead to firefighters who saw her in the first minutes after the crash, the federal documents show.
Roger Phillips, a firefighter based at the airport, was the first to spot Ye as he was riding in a rig called Rescue 10. He told investigators that he got out of his rig and walked 15 feet to where she lay.
"She looked to be dead 'by appearance,' but he did not check her vitals," according to the safety board's summary of its interview with Phillips. "He thought it was a mannequin because her face looked like wax. Her eyes were rolled back and her face 'looked like a grimace.'
"The body looked like a CPR dummy they used for training," Phillips said, according to the summary.
Phillips said he notified Rescue 10's driver, Jimmy Yee, about the girl and directed him around her, then told fire Lt. Christine Emmons about the find.
According to Phillips' account to the safety board, "She replied, 'Yes, yes, OK, OK. We've gotta get a line inside,' " referring to the need to get a hose into the burning craft as part of an effort to rescue victims.
Yee told fire officials that Phillips had identified an obstacle for him to avoid. "As I drove by, being careful not to run over what I thought was debris, I saw that it was a deceased victim," Yee said.
Emmons told federal investigators that she had seen the girl and "immediately categorized it as a casualty," the safety board said.
'Our first casualty'
The girl "was not making any sounds and was not moving," Emmons told investigators. "She made a 'three-second' visual assessment and thought, 'That's our first casualty,' and considered her as 'DOA' - but she also wanted to make sure she was not rolled over by a vehicle."
Rescue 10 maneuvered around the girl at 11:36 a.m., about nine minutes after Asiana Flight 214 had crashed. However, 14 minutes after it drove around her, Rescue 10 moved near the left wing and ran over Ye, the safety board's report says, citing surveillance-camera footage taken aboard the rig. By that point, the girl was covered in foam.
Then, at 12:01 p.m., a second rig, known as Rescue 37, also ran over Ye's foam-obscured body as the driver, Elyse Duckett, went to refill the vehicle with water, the report says. That is the rig visible in footage of the scene recorded by the helmet camera of a commanding officer, Battalion Chief Mark Johnson.
Another firefighter pointed out Ye's body to Johnson a short time after Rescue 37 hit her, according to the helmet-camera footage, which was reviewed by The Chronicle. It was apparently the first time any fire supervisor at the scene had been alerted to Ye's presence.
Duckett's July 9 statement to Fire Department investigators contains no indication that she knew she had run over anyone.
There is no summary of any interview with Johnson in the documents the federal safety board released.
It is unclear how Ye, who was sitting toward the back of the plane, ended up on the ground by the left wing. However, Deborah Hersman, chairwoman of the federal safety board, said interviews with other passengers indicated that Ye hadn't been wearing her seat belt and may have been thrown from the plane.
Under firefighting protocols, Ye's body should have been marked and protected as crash evidence even if she was dead before being run over. However, none of the firefighters who reported seeing her and concluding she was dead said they told Fire Department superiors of their find.
Firefighters weren't the only ones who thought Ye was dead. Henry Choy, a safety officer who works for the airport, told federal investigators that he had seen the girl before she was run over and that "he did not realize it was a real person," the safety board said.
"There was no blood around the body and there was no movement," the summary of Choy's interview said. "It looked more like a 'big doll.' "
Assistant chief testifies
In an interview with safety board investigators, Assistant Deputy Fire Chief Dale Carnes said firefighters had thought Ye "was obviously deceased."
He testified before the board Wednesday and said, "It is not a matter of us being careless or callous - it was the fact that we were dealing with a complex and dynamic environment and we were focused on saving as many lives as possible."
San Mateo County Coroner Robert Foucrault, told that firefighters hadn't checked Ye's vital signs, said in an interview with The Chronicle, "That's not how you pronounce somebody dead."
"There has never been any documentation to support that she was obviously dead or any protocol to make that determination," Foucrault said. "There's overwhelming scientific evidence to prove that she was alive when she was struck."
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