SAN FRANCISCO (CBS/AP/BCN) – Firefighters encountered smoke, leaking jet fuel and passengers coming down on chutes when they arrived at the Asiana jet crash at San Francisco International Airport that killed two people and injured more than 180.
San Francisco Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White said Monday at a news conference that the scene was “not something many people would see in their careers.” She lauded the bravery of her firefighters, many of whom went onto the burning Boeing 777 to rescue passengers.
Lt. Christine Emmons was one of those firefighters. She told reporters that she and her partner ran up an emergency chute into the plane moments after Saturday’s crash and found four passengers trapped in the back.
“The conditions in the plane were changing very rapidly,” with the fire coming down on rescuers and the smoke thickening as the trapped passengers were pulled out to safety, she said.
“By the time we removed everyone, heavy smoke was banking down on us,” Emmons said. “I feel lucky and blessed that we were able to get people out in time.”
Emmons recounted that she knew the incident was serious from the moment she got the call from a dispatcher.
“I knew from her voice that the event we were going to was real,” Emmons said, adding that her adrenaline was flowing as she arrived at smoldering wreckage and climbed up to reach the fuselage.
Lt. Dave Monteverdi described getting an initial radio call about an “Alert 3 plane crash.”
“That’s all we heard,” Monteverdi said as he and fellow firefighters immediately rushed to the crash site.
“All you could see across the airfield was just dark smoke billowing up to the sky, and you could see a plane was on its belly,” he said.
Monteverdi was among three firefighters, including Emmons, and two police officers without safety gear who rushed onto the plane to help evacuate trapped passengers, including one who was trapped under a collapsed bulkhead. Monteverdi said he used a flashlight to check for victims.
They had gotten everyone off the craft except one elderly man, who was in his seat, moaning and unable to move.
“We were running out of time,” Monteverdi recalled. “The smoke was starting to get thicker and thicker. So we had no choice. We stood him up and amazingly, he started shuffling his feet. That was a good sign…we were able to get him out and he was pretty much the last person off the plane.”
San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr called emergency responders’ performance “nothing short of incredible.”
SFPD Officer Jim Cunningham was singled out by Suhr for his bravery in running into the plane without any respiratory equipment.
“Just ‘wow’ is the only word that keeps popping up in my mind,” Suhr said.
Cunningham said after hearing the report of the crash on his radio, he stopped an ambulance and told its driver to follow him.
He said his memories of the scene were still somewhat of a blur.
“I didn’t think about it, I just thought people were in there and needed help,” he said.
SFPD Lt. Gaetano Caltagirone said the scene was noticeably quiet despite the dangerous situation facing the first responders.
“Everyone was doing what they were trained to do, save lives,” he said.
Caltagirone said many officers were emotional after the rescue operation.
“We’re all human beings … we all feel the emotion,” he said. “We just witnessed something very incredible and scary out there.”
He said it was important for the first responders and survivors of the crash to tell their stories as part of the coping process.
“If you don’t talk, you’re hurting yourself,” he said.
(Copyright 2013 by CBS San Francisco, the Associated Press and Bay City News. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)