San Francisco rescuers found courage amid chaos at scene of Boeing 777 crash
San Francisco — Lt. Christine Emmons works at an airport fire station known throughout the San Francisco Fire Department as “the crash house” for its close proximity to the runways.
At 11:27 a.m. Saturday, that nickname became reality when a voice from the airport control tower crackled through Emmons’ radio: “Alert 3, Alert 3, plane crash, plane crash.”
“I knew from her voice that the event we were going to was real,” Emmons said Monday.
Within minutes, she and other firefighters were scrambling up the inflatable chutes of Asiana Airlines Flight 214, even as black smoke billowed out and passengers slid down to escape.
In the back of the plane — which had lost its tail after clipping a seawall short of the runway — they joined a city police officer wearing no protective gear and rescued four injured victims, including one who was trapped.
The account of the first responders emerged at a news conference in which firefighters described a chaotic, rapidly changing scene after the crash, which killed two girls and injured dozens of other people. “It seemed to be surreal, like it wasn’t happening,” said fire Lt. Dave Monteverdi.
Emmons said that as she drove across the tarmac toward the crash, she saw a huge column of smoke. “Adrenaline was flowing,” she said.
The firefighters found the Boeing 777 on its belly, with jet fuel leaking from the left wing and passengers streaming down the chutes. Firefighters were hearing from the crew that passengers were still trapped inside, and some crew members were unaccounted for. Monteverdi climbed a chute from a left-side door, along with Emmons and firefighter-paramedic Mike Kirk. A hose line was fed to them, they said, and they knocked down flames in the fuselage.
Kirk soon radioed that he had found one flight attendant and four passengers still in the back of the plane, including an elderly man and a person who was stuck in debris.
“It was hectic,” Emmons said. “The back of the plane did not hold up as well as the front of the plane.”
One of two people put on backboards, Monteverdi said, was a woman who appeared to have fractured legs. One man was groaning, and the crew had little time to assess his injuries. “We were running out of time,” Monteverdi said. “The smoke was getting thicker and thicker. We had no choice. We stood him up. Amazingly, he began shuffling his feet.”
The firefighters said they were shocked to see San Francisco police Officer Jim Cunningham inside the plane helping out, wearing only his uniform.
Cunningham said he had heard the call and rushed onto the scene just as the chutes were deployed, bringing with him an ambulance he had waved down on his way to the crash.
Outside the plane, he said, he and his partner, Officer Derrick Lee, threw knives up to the crew so they could cut passengers out of their seat belts as jet fuel “gushed out like a fire hose” near him. “We kept trying to get the crew off, but they were really brave,” Cunningham said. “They wanted to stay with the plane.”
Cunningham cleared away debris that was blocking a hole where the tail used to be. As he looked up into the plane, he said, “it didn’t look like they had enough people.” So he went in.
“I was just running back and forth trying to help people,” Cunningham said. “I didn’t think about it. I just knew people were trapped in there. I just thought, ‘I’m kind of a tough guy, I can hold my breath if there’s a lot of smoke.’ ”