SAN MATEO (CBS/AP/BCN) — As the wreckage of Asiana Flight 214 burned on July 6 at San Francisco International Airport, Ye Meng Yuan was lying on the ground just 30 feet away — buried by the firefighting foam rescue workers were spraying to douse the flames.
No one knows exactly how the 16-year-old Chinese student got to that spot, but one thing is clear now: She was alive.
In the chaotic moments that followed — flames devouring the fuselage, those aboard escaping by emergency slides, flight attendants frantically cutting away seat belts to free passengers — an emergency vehicle ran over Yuan, killing her.
San Mateo County Coroner Robert Foucrault confirmed Friday that an autopsy showed Yuan died after suffering multiple blunt-force injuries consistent with being run over by a vehicle outside of the plane.
The new details compounded the tragedy for her family and confirmed the growing suspicions that emergency workers have had since soon after the crash: One of the three who died did so by rescuers’ actions.
“There’s not a lot of words to describe how badly we feel, how sorry we feel,” said San Francisco Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White, “obviously it’s devastating news to us.”
Members of the fire department are “very emotional from this incident,” Hayes-White added. “We go to work everyday to save lives. (There’s) very unfortunate news today. However, many, many lives were saved and we made a valiant effort to do so on July 6.”
Yuan’s family was upset after learning the details of their daughter’s death and wants her body returned to China, Foucrault said. “It was a difficult conversation,” he added.
Hayes-White said said the fire department has apologized to Yuan’s family and added that she was trying to arrange a meeting with them. She also noted that the “tragic accident” would prompt a review of how the SFFD uses the foam and responds to emergencies at the airport.
“Every aspect of our response that day is under review,” the chief said, but indicated that she did not immediately foresee any disciplinary action against firefighters.
In a statement, Chinese Consul Wang Xiang noted the efforts by officials to “disclose the truth,” but called for further investigation.
“We urge the involved parties of the U.S. side to deal properly with the aftermath of Mengyuan’s death and investigate and affix responsibility for this tragic accident,” the statement read.
San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee reacted by saying he regretted the tragic death and added, “Our hearts are heavy, and our thoughts and prayers continue to be with their families and friends an ocean away.”
But Lee also praised the “quick response and heroic decisions of our first responders,” who he said were able to save many of the passengers and crew members on board the plane.
In all, 304 of the 307 people aboard the Boeing 777 survived the crash at SFO.
Yuan and her close friend, 16-year-old Wang Linjia, who also died, were students at Jiangshan Middle School in Zhejiang, an affluent coastal province in eastern China, Chinese state media has reported.
They were part of a group of students and teachers from the school who were heading to summer camp in Southern California.
Yuan and Linjia were seated at the back of the plane. Federal investigators said the jetliner came in too low and too slow, clipping its landing gear and then its tail on a rocky seawall just short of the runway – but exactly cause of the accident to happen remains under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board.
Linjia’s body was found body near the seawall at the edge of the runway.
It was unclear how Yuan got from the airplane to the spot where she died. Investigators believe she was down on the ground and not standing up during the “volatile” and “dangerous” aftermath of the plane crash, the fire chief said.
Foucrault declined to go into detail on how he determined the teenager was alive before she was struck, but said there was internal hemorrhaging that indicated her heart was still beating at the time.
Investigators with the San Francisco Police Department’s hit-and-run unit determined last week that Yuan was hit by a vehicle racing to extinguish the flames in the plane. The SFPD said she was on the ground and covered in the foam that rescuers had sprayed on the wreckage and they believe she was struck by at least one specialized fire truck based at the airport.
The other crash victim, 15-year-old Liu Yipeng, died a week later at San Francisco General Hospital.
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