Firefighters, lower center, stand by a tarp covering the body of 16-year-old… (Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated…)
Confirmation that one of the victims of the Asiana Airlines crash died after being run over by a rescue vehicle opened a new front in the investigation of the air disaster.
San Mateo County Coroner Robert J. Foucrault said Friday that the victim, a 16-year-old Chinese girl, was alive on the tarmac when she was struck by the vehicle, suffering crushing injuries and internal hemorrhaging — "multiple blunt injuries that are consistent with being run over by a motor vehicle."
"She was alive when she received the injuries," he said.
San Francisco Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White told reporters that it is believed the girl was struck by an Aircraft Rescue Fire Fighting truck, known as an ARFF — a specialized vehicle that can run at speeds of up to 70 mph and spray fire-retardant foam even while speeding toward a burning plane.
Air safety experts said they could not remember a case in recent U.S. history of a passenger being fatally struck by rescuers after a crash-landing. They said it will require a significant reevaluation of how crews handle crashes.
The experts said rescuers at San Francisco International Airport acted with the best of intentions: Training tells them that the most dangerous aspect of a plane crash is the fire and that extinguishing it as quickly as possible should be the top priority.
"The first thing you want to do is get the fire out to protect the victims," said Tom Wieczorek, director of the Center for Public Safety Management at the International City/County Management Assn. based in Washington, D.C.
Jet fuel burns at 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit, and it will burn through the plane exterior's aluminum and its fire-retardant insulation within three minutes, said Fred Cnota, an Aircraft Rescue Fire Fighting commander at Chicago O'Hare International Airport.
"It's a lot of thinking on your feet, and you've got to have eyes in the back of your head. You're trying to cross runways, and you have to get there fast ... before the fire is inside the cabin," he said. Referring to the passengers, he added: "If you're inside the cabin when it starts burning, you're dead."
The Federal Aviation Administration requires that the first crash rig be on the scene within three minutes and the last within four, Cnota said.
Many deaths in previous crashes occurred among people who survived the initial landing but died in the subsequent fire.
But in this case, many Asiana passengers managed to exit the plane before the fire spread and were walking on the tarmac. It's unclear how the victim, Ye Mengyuan, got to a space near the left wing of the plane following the July 6 crash-landing at the airport. Ye was one of three passengers killed. It was not clear how her body ended up near the plane's wing, the coroner said, adding it was "speculative" that she was thrown from the plane. She was on the ground when she was struck by the vehicle.
A San Francisco Police Department spokesman said last week that the girl was outside the plane and covered in fire-retardant foam when the fire truck "went over her."
Wieczorek said the Asiana incident shows that officials need to look at the way rescuers approach crash sites and answer the big question: How can you spot a survivor despite all the chaos of burning wreckage, debris all over the airfield, and a blanket of foam possibly covering people?
"Is it putting infrared devices on a vehicle that may spot a warm body, even if it is covered?" he asked.
Part of the problem is the thickness of the fire-extinguishing foam. "It's almost like a bubble bath … you could easily lose something in the foam blanket," said Miami International Airport Division Chief Stephen Kilby of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue.
"This is a nightmare," Kilby said of the situation.
"We realize as the wreckage is scattered, people can unfortunately be scattered as well. We train for things like this, but sometimes, if something like that were to happen, I'm not sure that it's avoidable," Kilby said.
Wieczorek said that until recent years, rescuers would not have faced that issue because planes tended to explode during crash-landings. But the development of fire-resistant materials in planes in recent decades has increased survivability in hard landings such as the one at SFO.
Another issue is visibility. Cnota said that in his unit, the driver can have difficulty seeing through the ARFF's sides and rear. He trains drivers to avoid situations in which they have to back up because it can be difficult to see.
Wieczorek, a former fire chief in Michigan, said firefighters at airports train for such situations, "but nothing prepares you for what you encounter on a scene like this. No matter how hard you train, something is always different."
The San Francisco fire chief called Ye's death a "tragic accident" and said in a news conference the incident was still under investigation.