July 9, 2013 in Nation/World

Doubt surrounds passenger’s death

Officials investigating whether rescuers ran over Chinese girl while responding to plane crash
Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

People gather at a park in Jiangshan city in eastern China’s Zhejiang province on Monday to mourn for the two victims of the Asiana Airlines plane crash Saturday in San Francisco. Chinese state media and Asiana Airlines have identified the victims as Ye Mengyuan and Wang Linjia, students in Zhejiang.
(Full-size photo)

Pattern of spine injuries

Many survivors of Saturday’s plane crash in San Francisco have a surprising pattern of spine injuries that a doctor says shows how violently they were shaken despite wearing seat belts.

So far, two people are unable to move their legs – doctors don’t yet know if the damage is permanent – and several others have needed surgery to stabilize their spines so they can move, said Dr. Geoffrey Manley, neurosurgery chief at San Francisco General Hospital who is overseeing their care.

Among the worst injuries are crushed vertebrae that compress the spinal cord, and ligaments so stretched and torn that they can’t hold neck and back joints in place, Manley said Monday.

That 305 of the 307 passengers and crew of the Asiana jet survived the crash is remarkable, and a testimony to improvements in airline safety in recent years.

Still, Manley said, even among those who suffered mild spine trauma, he is struck by a pattern that shows how their upper bodies were flung forward and then backward over the lap belts that kept them in their seats and undoubtedly saved their lives.

SAN FRANCISCO – Amid the marvel of nearly all aboard Asiana Flight 214 surviving a crash landing, authorities here are investigating an unspeakable tragedy that may have unfolded during the frantic rescue – whether a teenage girl made it out of the plane only to be run over by a rescue vehicle.

Federal and local officials on Monday addressed the possibility that the Chinese girl, who along with a classmate comprised the crash’s two fatalities, might have been killed accidentally on the runway as the first firefighters raced to the scene of a wrecked, smoking airliner.

“One of our fire apparatus may have come into contact with one of our two victims,” Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White said during a news conference called to highlight the heroic efforts of first responders. “I assure you, we are looking closely at this.”

Findings of what caused the 16-year-old’s death – the plane crash, the fire truck, or both – may not come for several weeks.

A firefighter first reported to a superior on Saturday that a passenger who was on the ground roughly 30 feet from the wreckage and near the escape slide may have been run over as fire crews were shifting from dousing the flames to taking victims to hospitals, officials said.

Police, FBI agents, the coroner and other officials were notified after the firefighter at the scene reported his concerns, officials said. The drivers of the first five trucks to respond to the emergency were given drug and alcohol tests, which they passed.

It’s not clear why the firefighters thought someone had been run over. Fire Department officials said they did not want to provide details because of the ongoing investigation by city police, the county coroner whose office received the body and the National Transportation Safety Board.

Airport video surveillance footage reviewed by federal accident investigators proved inconclusive, NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman said.

“It is a very serious issue and we want to understand it,” she said. “We want to make sure we have all the facts before we reach conclusions.”

The job of gathering those facts – including determining whether the evidence shows that the girl was hit by the truck and if she was still alive when it happened – has fallen in large part to San Mateo County Coroner Robert Foucrault.

Foucrault said Monday the two Chinese girls have been identified through fingerprints. Their autopsies were completed and their bodies prepared to be claimed by their parents, who were expected to arrive in San Francisco on Monday.

Foucrault originally had planned to release a preliminary cause of death for each of them on Monday, but decided to wait until he could do a broader inquiry. “This is a very high-profile case and has obviously generated a lot of attention,” Foucrault said at his office located a few miles south of San Francisco International Airport where the plane crashed Saturday. “I want to make absolutely sure my conclusions are correct.”

Chinese state media and Asiana have identified the girls as Ye Mengyuan and Wang Linjia, students at Jiangshan Middle School in Zhejiang, an affluent coastal province in eastern China.

They were part of a group of 29 students and five teachers from the school who were heading to a summer camp in Southern California, according to education authorities in China.

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