SAN FRANCISCO — When firefighters stationed at San Francisco International Airport’s “crash house” station get an alert, it’s usually that an approaching aircraft has a mechanical problem; the fire trucks roll, but rarely are needed.
But when a female dispatcher’s voice called “alert 3, alert 3, plane crash, plane crash,” on Saturday, Lt. Chrissy Emmons “knew from her voice that the event we were going to was real.”
All too real, as Emmons and scores of other first responders would find: Asiana Flight 214 had come in too low and slow and had clipped a seawall, shearing off its tail and sending it skidding across the ground on its belly as it caught fire. The next few minutes would test all of their senses, training and bravery.
But amid the heroism there might have been a tragic accident.
San Francisco Fire Department Capt. Dale Carnes acknowledged Monday that there’s a possibility that one of Saturday’s two fatalities might have been hit by an emergency vehicle.
“At this time, because we have not clearly defined or established those facts, we cannot answer your questions,” Carnes said, adding he didn’t want to compromise an ongoing investigation.
The airport’s incoming flights still were delayed by an average of two and half hours Monday, according to the Federal Aviation Administration website, as one of its four runways remained closed and littered with debris. Four planes scheduled to land in San Francisco on Monday were expected to be diverted to Mineta San Jose International Airport, according to airport spokeswoman Vicki Day.
Elsewhere, six passengers who suffered the worst injuries remained in critical condition Monday at San Francisco General Hospital, including one child. They’re being treated for an assortment of wounds including spinal cord injury, traumatic brain injury, abdominal injury, internal bleeding, road rash and fractures, a hospital spokeswoman said.
National Transportation Safety Board chairwoman Deborah Hersman, at a news conference Monday in South San Francisco, said investigators believe Asiana 214 did not descend at an abnormally steep angle. But while it should have been moving at about 137 knots when landing, its flight recorder shows it was moving at 103 knots.
Hersman said the pilots didn’t ask air-traffic controllers for permission to abort the landing, pull up and fly around for another pass; they merely discussed it in the cockpit in the seconds just before the crash. “We want to understand what they knew and what they understood,” she said, adding the pilots were being interviewed Monday.
The NTSB is still reviewing video of the crash “made available by the airport and by others,” she said, and the airplane’s tail cone remains in the water near the seawall while parts of the seawall were found several hundred feet up the runway.
Some first responders turns at the podium during a separate news conference Monday morning to describe what they’d done, their voices shaking as they apologized about being unused to speaking in front of big crowds.
San Francisco police Officer Jim Cunningham said he had been finishing a routine check of an airport building when he heard another officer’s calm voice over his radio, calling “code 33, 777 down.” He flagged down a nearby ambulance and told the driver to follow his car through a security gate and onto the runway.
He and another officer went first to the plane’s front, where they saw older passengers on the ground being tended to by flight attendants; other flight attendance called down from the plane’s door, asking for knives with which they could cut more passengers free of their seat belts. The officers gave the attendants their knives, but saw the plane’s wing was “gushing fuel right next to us,” Cunningham said, so they began moving everyone back.
Fire Lt. Dave Monteverdi is usually stationed at the “crash house” too, but was working elsewhere Saturday and had just finished another call at one of terminals when the crash alert came. He and his crew, already in their truck and turnout gear, rushed to a “surreal” scene.
Emmons said as they sped across the runways toward a column of smoke, “adrenaline was flowing at this time and I had to keep reminding my driver … if we don’t get there, we can’t help anybody.”
They positioned their rescue truck near the plane’s nose and began spraying foam on the flames that licked at the fuselage. Then Emmons circled around and met up with Monteverdi and firefighter Mike Kirk — and the three of them went running up an inflatable chute by which passengers had been escaping.
Monteverdi went left, toward the cockpit, while Emmons and Kirk took a fire hose to the right to knock down flames while searching for passengers.
“The conditions as we went down the plane were getting better, most of the fire was in the front of the plane,” Emmons said.
And then Kirk radioed back that he’d found several passengers near the plane’s mangled rear end.
“We had elderly, we had a woman with a gentleman who was standing over her, we had someone who was partially trapped, as it turned out there was a small person stuck between the seats,” Emmons said. “The back of the plane did not hold up as well as the front … the fuselage was definitely more impacted.”
Monteverdi found nobody in the forward part of the plane, so he went to the rear to help Emmons and Kirk. As another rescue crew came in from the rear, they all set about freeing the final passengers.
Cunningham said when he arrived at the plane’s rear and saw the firefighters inside, “it didn’t look like they had enough people in there” — so without any breathing apparatus, he went in, too, to start clearing debris in order to widen the hole so passengers could be removed.
San Francisco police Lt. Gaetano Caltagirone was his department’s incident commander Saturday, but when he saw Cunningham run into the burning airplane, “I couldn’t let him go inside the plane and just be there by himself.”
So Caltagirone went inside too, helping Cunningham to move debris out of the way and then move the final passengers off the plane.
“It was so surreal, there was so much chaos going on but it was quiet,” he said — at least, it seemed quiet to him in the heat of the moment. “It probably was very loud out there, but it was quiet and everybody was doing what they were trained to do.”
Emmons said by the time the final five passengers had been removed, “the conditions inside the plane were changing very rapidly,” Emmons said.
“By the time we removed the final victim … the fire was banking down on us, we had heavy black smoke,” she said. “So I feel very blessed we were able to get those people off the plane in that time.”
Cunningham said he saw a wall of black smoke rushing toward him as he got out of the plane. Yet, believing there was a chance that passengers were still aboard, he ducked back in for one fast, final look.
After that, “I guess we just did our job the rest of the day,” he said without a hint of irony.
Once off the plane, firefighters and police set about fighting the flames and triaging patients for transport to local hospitals — but the immediate crisis had passed.
“I felt confident that the plane was gone through well and we did not leave anybody there,” Emmons said. “At that point, it’s just a fire now.”
Fire rescue Capt. Tony Molloy oversaw the triage-and-treatment area: a red area for the most severely injured, a yellow area for those less harmed, and a green area for those needing only limited aid.
The reds were evacuated to local hospitals within minutes, followed by the yellows, Molloy said; the greens were moved to the airport’s international terminal to be re-triaged, and more than 100 of them were eventually taken to local hospitals, too.
Caltagirone said he’s inspired by what he saw in his fellow police and firefighters Saturday.
“They didn’t worry about themselves, they worried about the lives of the people they needed to save,” he said.