SAN MATEO, Calif. – Confirming the worst-case scenario, officials said Friday that one of the victims of Asiana Flight 214 was alive when she was run over and killed by at least one firetruck that had been dispatched to rescue survivors and extinguish flames from the burning Boeing 777.
The painful revelation raises uncomfortable questions about the response to the July 6 crash and has cast a shadow over a heroic response that saved most of the 307 passengers and crew aboard the doomed plane.
“There’s not a lot of words to describe how badly we feel, how sorry we feel,” San Francisco Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White said at a press conference with San Mateo County Coroner Robert Foucrault.
“We commit to continue to examine our response that day,” Hayes-White said. “Could we have done something different faced with the challenges we had in terms of passengers still on an aircraft that was engulfed in flames … and the need to get to those flames? We had fuel leaking. It was a very dangerous and volatile situation.”
Ye Mengyuan, the 16-year-old victim, was covered in fire-fighting foam when she was run over, San Francisco police said. Officials haven’t said whether first responders made an effort to dig through the foam to search for victims, or explained how her body ended up covered in foam.
Many fire departments and airports do not use foam when they practice responding to mock plane crashes, fire and airport officials said, although it could not be learned Friday whether drills at SFO use the substance. Federal Aviation Administration regulations, which require practice responses every three years, do not mandate that fire departments train for airliner crashes using either actual fire or foam.
San Jose firefighters don’t use fire or foam for their mandatory FAA drills at Mineta San Jose International Airport, but said they do train with both during annual drills at either Moffett Federal Airfield or Salt Lake City.
But the presence of foam can quickly overwhelm a mock crash site, San Jose Fire Capt. Cleo Doss said.
“When we do start dropping a lot of foam in the area it’s like skiing in a whiteout condition,” Doss said. “You can’t see anything.”
Doss saw photos of the foam covering the burning Boeing 777 at SFO and said it was “chest high.”
An investigation continues to determine exactly which fire rig or rigs ran over Mengyuan. Fire officials previously said each of the five personnel operating rescue apparatus at the crash site passed drug and alcohol screenings in the ensuing investigation. Asked Friday if any firefighters face disciplinary action, Hayes-White said, “At this moment, no. I consider it a tragic accident.”
Before Mengyuan was run over, Foucrault said, “She was alive at the time.” She died of “multiple blunt injuries that are consistent with being run over by a motor vehicle.”
An examination of internal hemorrhaging ruled out any chance the girl was already dead when the truck hit her, Foucrault said.
The San Francisco Police Department, which continues to investigate Mengyuan’s death, said her body was discovered in tracks in the fire-retardant foam that had been left by one of the San Francisco Fire Department’s Airline Rescue and Firefighting rigs.
Mengyuan and 16-year-old Wang Linjia were found dead after the crash. The Chinese schoolmates were ejected from the plane after the tail snapped off when it crashed into the seawall that abuts Runway 28 Left. Both girls were seated near the rear of the aircraft.
A third fatality was reported July 12 when 15-year-old Liu Yipeng, who was found in the wreckage still strapped to her seat, died from her injuries.
San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and Hayes-White have reached out to Mengyuan’s family “to not only express our condolences and apologies but to also offer, if they are willing and interested, in sitting down so we can have a face-to-face meeting.”
Asiana Airlines said in a statement that it “extends its sincere condolences to the families of all three of the decedents.”