First responders gave their accounts Monday of the chaotic scene they encountered when Asiana Airlines Flight 214 crashed at San Francisco International Airport on Saturday. Joe Rosato Jr. reports.
It was just another Saturday for Lt. Chrissy Emmons.
As jets landed and took-off from San Francisco International Airport, the veteran firefighter passed the time doing routine chores in a building amid the runways nicknamed the “crash house.”
But, as Emmons recalled, there was nothing routine about the radio call that pierced the air at 11:27 a.m.
“The communication from the tower was Alert 3, Alert 3,” Emmons remembered. “Plane crash, plane crash.”
It was the moment Emmons had trained for, but never thought would come. Yet even in that split second, there was no doubt something terrible had happened.
“It was a female that dispatched us,” said Emmons. “I knew from her voice that the event we were going to was real.”
As she piled into a special tarmac fire engine, Emmons could see the black column of smoke stretching toward the sky where planes were still flying.
Once she arrived at the burning wreckage, fire crews began pumping water and foam onto the plane which was on fire toward the front, its tail torn away in the back.
Passengers were sliding down from the plane on emergency chutes when Emmons spotted fellow firefighter Lieutenant Dave Monteverdi climbing a chute to enter the plane.
“The only way in the plane was either to try to grab a ladder, which would take a lot of time,” said Monteverdi. “It was up the chute and just went for it.”
Emmons followed Monteverdi into the plane. He headed toward the front, she went toward the back.
“All the overhead bins were just like they say, they opened up,” said Monteverdi. “Everyone’s luggage was all over the place, the oxygen masks were hanging down.”
Monteverdi searched the front of the plane which was filled with black smoke. Satisfied the area was clear, he moved toward the rear of the plane where Emmons and other firefighters were tending to five passengers, either injured or trapped in debris.
Emmons recalled seeing a man with a bloody face summoning rescuers into the plane, despite his own wound.
A few of the trapped victims were elderly -- a man stood over an injured woman waiting for rescuers to get to her.
While tending to the passengers, Emmons was surprised to look up and see a San Francisco police officer enter the plane and begin helping the rescue.
“We had a very brave San Francisco police officer enter the plane with no [breathing equipment],” Emmons said.
That officer was Jim Cunningham, who climbed into the plane wearing nothing but his regulation short-sleeved uniform.
“I saw the fire department in there. I go, 'I’d better see what’s going on,'” said Cunningham. “I ran inside there and I saw a few passengers in their seats, trapped in there. I go, ‘I’ve got to help these people.’”
Cunningham helped the firefighters remove the injured victims. Black smoke and flames began filling the rear cabin just as the last passenger was carried out.
Cunningham and his commander realized they should get out of the plane fast. But, even once safely outside, he made one last dash inside to make sure everyone was out.
“You can’t leave somebody sitting there to die and you’re standing there doing nothing,” Cunningham said.
The officer said when he first arrived at the scene, he and another officer handed their knives to the plane’s crew members, who were trying to cut passengers free from their seatbelts.
He said he had to deter some passengers, who were returning to the burning plane to try and fetch luggage.
Once the passengers were off, or being transported, Emmons was overcome with a sense of relief. For the first time, the disaster had become something she knew well – the burning mass before her was now just a fire.
“I knew that we had gotten everybody off,” said Emmons.” And that was what mattered to me.”