“Asiana 214 heavy. Emergency vehicles are responding. We have everyone on their way.”
That was the call that went out from dispatch Saturday morning as Flight 214 came in for a crash landing at San Francisco International Airport.
Lt. Chrissy Emmons with the San Francisco Fire Department was stationed at the airport, at the fire station they call the “crash house.” She was one of the first to hear the red alert.
“It was a female that dispatched us, and I knew from her voice that the event we were going to was real,” says Emmons.
As firefighters were racing toward the aircraft, the Asiana flight crew was getting passengers off the plane. The young women from South Korea in high heels and pencil skirts were rushing them toward the emergency slides.
“My brain was very clear, and I planned what I had to do immediately,” says one of the flight attendants through a translator. “Actually, I was not thinking, but acting.”
The flight crew were among the last to leave the plane, in some cases even carrying passengers out piggy back.
Lt. Emmons says the first thing she saw when she approached the runway was the front of the fuselage on fire.
“We made a left turn, and we saw a large column of smoke,” says Emmons.
Fire Lieutenant Dave Monteverde knew they had no time to waste.
“The only way in the plan was either try to grab a ladder, which would take a lot of time, or it was up the shoot. So, we just went for it,” says Monteverde.
They climbed the rescue chutes that the passengers had used to escape, so they could fight the flames and rescue some victims who were still trapped inside.
“All of the over head bins were, just like they they say, they had opened up. Everyone’s luggage was all over the place. The oxygen masks were hanging down,” says Monteverde.
“The conditions inside the plane were changing very rapidly. When we first got back there and saw these people, it was actually pretty clear. There was not a lot of smoke, not a lot of fire,” says Emmons. “But, by the time we removed the final victim the conditions were that the fire was banking down on us. We had heavy black smoke. I feel very lucky and blessed that we were able to get those people out.”
While they were working in the main fuselage, other first responders were rescuing passengers from the tail of the plane, which had broken off.
In addition to the firefighters, a San Francisco Police Officer ran in to try and rescue passengers.
Officer Jim Cunningham says normally he would have let the firefighters deal with the burning structure, but in this case he couldn’t stand back and wait. Even though he had no fire gear, not even an oxygen mask to protect him, he climbed into the plane.
“I didn’t think about it. I just ran in there because I knew these people had to get out of there,” says Officer Jim Cunningham. “You can’t leave somebody sitting there to die and you’re standing there doing nothing.”
In the end, there were two young women who died Saturday and 62 people who had to be treated at the hospital. But, Emmons says, she’s glad she could help.
“I knew that we had gotten everybody off, and that was what mattered to me,” Emmons says.
As of Monday night, most of the patients had been discharged. Seventeen remain in the hospital, including the six in critical condition.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.