Emergency personnel -- several close to tears -- shared tales Monday of their race to save passengers and crew from the burning wreckage of Asiana Airlines Flight 214.
As the drama unfolded, firefighters ran up the aircraft’s inflated escape chutes to get to those trapped inside. A police officer without protective gear joined them, entering through the breached tail section and clearing a passage by tossing out luggage and wrecked overhead bins.
All the while, jet fuel streamed off the wing.
It began like any other Saturday, until the 11:27 a.m. call came in.
For the fire crews who staff the “crash house” at San Francisco International Airport, emergency calls usually entail lights out on a plane, a problem with a wing flag or other minor issues. But when Lt. Christine Emmons heard the tone of the dispatcher’s voice, she knew this one was different.
“Alert 3, alert 3, plane crash, plane crash,” came a female voice, and Emmons knew “that the event we were going to was real.”
Suiting up, she and a driver raced to the scene and positioned themselves left of the craft’s nose. They were spraying foam when another fire engine arrived to help. She and Lt. Dave Monteverdi repositioned their trucks.
“I saw Dave run up the chute of the aircraft,” Emmons recounted with a slight shake in her voice. “I said if he can do it, I can do it.”
Monteverdi headed to check the cockpit, and Emmons and firefighter Mike Kirk went the other way. Kirk ran ahead to the rear of the plane, where the tail gash showed the light of day. That’s where he found five injured.
Someone was trapped between the seats, another older gentleman was groaning. A man was standing over a woman with a badly broken leg. Another person lay pinned under the collapsed bulkhead. Ultimately, two were removed on backboards.
Meanwhile, flames were kicking up. “By the time we moved the victims, the fire was banking down on us … we had heavy black smoke.”
Lanky, shy and admittedly nervous, Monteverdi told reporters that when firefighters realized “our only way up was up the chute … that’s what we did.”
Not long after, he noticed San Francisco Police Officer Jim Cunningham -- with no mask and no safety gear -- right beside him.
Cunningham was on patrol Saturday when he stopped his car at the airport’s signature aircraft terminal. It was there he heard K-9 Officer Jeff Brown call for a Code 33: “777 down.”
“I stopped for a second. I was in shock,” Cunningham said. “I asked dispatch where, and he said, ‘Out in the airfield.’”
Cunningham ran outside the building and saw the smoke. He yelled to a nearby ambulance responding to another call -- “Stop! We need your help!” -- and jumped in his patrol car.
Then he raced toward the crash site, telling dispatchers to clear the runway and waving at another fire vehicle, looping it into the speeding convoy. When they got to the smoldering plane, the chutes were deploying and people were standing around the front of the plane.
Cunningham sprinted toward the front, where the flight crew was trying to help others evacuate the jet. Two men from the cockpit team needed a way to cut them loose, they said.
Cunningham and Officer Derrick Lee, who drove across active runways to get to the plane, tossed up their knives.
The crew was “really brave,” Cunningham said. “They wanted to stay with the plane and make sure everyone was off.”
The officers saw fuel gushing out of the wing. “We’ve gotta get out of here!” They yelled to the crew. “Let’s go!”
After the crew and passengers moved away from the front of the plane, Cunningham looked to the back. The tail was gone. When he peered inside, he could see the fire crew needed help. He began grabbing bags from the collapsed luggage compartments, panels of the plane -- “whatever I could to get myself inside there.”
Lt. Gaetano Caltagirone followed his partner. The two helped firefighters free people and bring them out.
When asked why he took the risk, Cunningham said: “I thought I was a tough guy and that I could hold my breath.” But as he and Emmons carried the last passenger out on a backboard, “I started coughing. We were trying to hold on to the person with the board and trying to not to drop him. The smoke was thick and black and swirling around us.”
Then they were out.
Moments of confusion followed.
After the evacuation, a flight attendant rushed toward first responders holding the manifest. Four of her colleagues, she believed, were still missing and might be on board.
At that point, the fire had worsened, San Francisco Assistant Fire Chief Tom Siragusa said. But his people -- along with San Mateo County firefighters -- “once again went onto that plane and conducted another search under the most trying of circumstances.”
Cunningham went in yet again when it was believed that up to 60 people were unaccounted for. By that point, the plane’s midsection was ablaze.
“I almost started crying because I thought I’d screwed up and people got killed,” he said.
Soon, with the fire controlled and the passengers and crew out, the triaging began -- a job so well done that medical staff at San Francisco General Hospital said many more would have died without the effort.
Through it all, emergency personnel said, there was an eerie calm.
“It was surreal. There was so much chaos going on, and it was quiet,” Caltagirone said. “We spoke about this [afterward.] Everybody was doing what they were trained to do. “
Cunningham recalls little after he exited the craft other than dashing around helping the injured. At one point, he spotted an iPhone on the ground — he clicked it on and saw a photo of a mother and daughter. He put in his back pocket, thinking "someone's going to want this."
Later in the day, another iPhone. He grabbed that one too.
"This poor person," he remembered thinking. "This might be the last memories they have of somebody."
Monday’s lengthy briefing shed little light on the news reported Sunday that one of the deceased teen victims may have been run over by an emergency vehicle. But officials said police and the FBI were informed of the possibility promptly.
Assistant Deputy Fire Chief Capt. Dale Carnes, who is in charge of his department’s airport rescue division, said: “Once we had everyone transported, the scene was locked down and secured and became part of a formal investigation.”
San Francisco police will assist the National Transportation Safety Board with that investigation, and the Fire Department is conducting its own internal review, he said. An autopsy scheduled for Monday will likely reveal more information on the teen’s cause of death.
“Because we have not clearly defined or established those facts we cannot answer your questions,” Carnes said, adding that findings will be made public “once the investigation is complete.”
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