SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5/AP) — Many survivors of Saturday’s plane crash at San Francisco International Airport have a surprising pattern of spine injuries that a doctor said shows how violently they were shaken despite wearing seat belts.
But Dr. Geoffrey Manley, neurosurgery chief at San Francisco General Hospital, told KPIX 5 that things could have been worse and being strapped into stronger seats still helped lessen the injuries.
Twenty-six of the 62 crash victims brought to SF General were treated for spinal and brain injuries.
So far, two people are unable to move their legs – doctors don’t yet know if the damage is permanent – and several others have needed surgery to stabilize their spines so they can move, said Manley, who is overseeing their care.
Among the worst injuries are crushed vertebrae that compress the spinal cord, and ligaments so stretched and torn that they can’t hold neck and back joints in place, Manley said in an interview.
That 305 of the 307 passengers and crew of the Asiana jet survived the crash is remarkable, and a testimony to improvements in airline safety in recent years. More than 180 people in all went to hospitals with injuries, but only a small number were critically injured.
Still, Manley said even among those who suffered mild spine trauma, he is struck by a pattern that shows how their upper bodies were flung forward and then backward over the lap belts that kept them in their seats and undoubtedly saved their lives.
The injuries are somewhat reminiscent of the days before shoulder belts in cars, although much more severe.
Does that mean shoulder belts in airplanes would prevent such injuries? Manley said he can’t make that conclusion.
“If you put in the shoulder belt, it might just move the injuries up further. Your head weighs a tremendous amount,” Manley said. He hopes to study the issue, comparing survivors’ injuries to where they sat on Asiana Airlines Flight 214.
The airline industry said adding three-point seatbelts to airplanes would require major changes to seat design that would mean higher airfares and less comfort.
Some business-class seats have added a type of shoulder restraint, but those seats are more like beds and often don’t face forward.
Meanwhile, Manley said assuming the “crash position” – leaning forward with the head as far down as possible and arms over it – can limit the spine jolting back and forth and offer some protection. It’s not clear if any survivors of Saturday’s crash had time to do so.
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