National & World News

First responders to Asiana crash tell of race to rescue passengers

By Lee Romney, Kate Mather and Joseph Serna, Los Angeles Times

asiana plane crash

Photo by David Eun, passenger on plane. Via Path.

SAN FRANCISCO — Jet fuel was leaking from Asiana Airlines Flight 214 as firefighters boarded the plane in what they described as a race against time to rescue passengers from the wreakage, first responders said Monday.

More than a dozen first responders came to a news conference to describe the chaotic scene in new detail. Many said responding to the plane crash, which killed two and seriously injured scores more, was beyond their normal experience.

San Francisco Fire Department Assistant Chief Tom Siragusa said “this is something we train for … but it’s not something many people would see in their career.”

He said there was nothing he would have done differently.

Lt. Christine Emmons said she was at the station’s “crash house” — the nickname for one of the airport fire stations. When they responded to the crash, she turned the corner and saw a plume of smoke coming from the plane.

“Adrenaline was flowing at this time,” she said. Emmons kept reminding the driver “if we don’t get there, we’re not going to help anybody.”

Emmons said she and other firefighters literally ran up the emergency chutes. Most of the fire was toward the front of the plane. The conditions worsened as they moved to the rear and the smoke and flames grew.

The air was clearest near the back of the plane, where the crash had the “greatest impact,” according to Emmons.

They found a passenger there, pinned between two seats.

Emmons said they saw jet fuel leaking from the engines. The flames spread overhead as they worked through the plane.

“I feel very lucky and blessed we were able to get those people out at that time,” she said.

The details emerged just a day after officials said the jetliner was flying far below its intended landing speed and on the verge of stalling before the aircraft clipped a sea wall and slammed into the runway.

The targeted landing speed for the Boeing 777-200ER is 137 knots, and the South Korean jetliner was “significantly” below that, said Deborah A.P. Hersman, chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board.

Independent flight tracking data indicate the wide-body’s airspeed might have dipped to as low as 85 knots in the moments leading up to the crash.

Hersman said there was a call in the cockpit to increase speed seven seconds before the plane’s tail struck the sea wall that separates the airport’s runway from the bay.

According to onboard flight and voice recorders, the pilots received a warning four seconds before impact that the aircraft was approaching a stall — a speed so low it can no longer generate enough lift to stay aloft.

At 1.5 seconds before impact, there was a call for the plane to abort the landing and circle around, Hersman said. By then it was too late, as the jetliner crashed and broke apart, killing two passengers and injuring dozens of others. The plane was carrying 307 people.

Asked whether pilot error may have been a factor, Hersman said: “Everything is on table right now. Nothing has been ruled out.”

Wang Linjia and Ye Mengyuan, 16-year-old girls from the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang, were named over the weekend as the crash’s sole fatalities. Sunday afternoon, officials said one of the two teens may have been run over by an emergency vehicle. More than 180 other people were taken to hospitals after the incident. At least two of those were paralyzed with spinal injuries, and eight remained in critical condition Sunday, hospital officials said.

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