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By Sarah McBride and Kristina Cooke
SAN FRANCISCO, July 12 Tapes of 911 emergency
calls made moments after an Asiana Airlines jet crashed at San
Francisco airport last Saturday reveal panic and confusion, and
highlight some possible problems as emergency services raced to
The crash of the Boeing 777 killed two and injured
more than 180. The first police and fire
personnel arrived at the crash scene in about two minutes, and
local officials said brave rescue efforts and effective triage
of the many wounded likely saved lives.
Still, the 11 minutes of 911 tapes released by the
California Highway Patrol portray a tense and sometimes chaotic
situation as severely injured passengers awaited help.
"There are people laying on the tarmac with critical
injuries, head injuries. We're almost losing a woman here," one
passenger said in a taped call, stating she had been waiting
for 20 to 30 minutes.
The tapes appear to confirm witness accounts that several
people were left unattended near the end of the runway as
emergency crews focused on the main crash site.
"We have people over here who weren't found," another 911
Three flight attendants and one Chinese student, who died in
the accident, were ejected from the back of the plane after the
tail broke off, according to National Transportation Safety
Board Chairwoman Deborah Hersman.
Officials are also investigating whether one of the two
Chinese teenagers killed in the crash was run over by a fire
truck, according to the San Francisco Fire Department. The large
number of non-English-speaking passengers also presented some
"We're looking at this, and what we can learn from it," Rob
Dudgeon, deputy director of the department of emergency
management at the city and county of San Francisco, said in a
phone interview on Thursday.
'SOMETHING OUT OF A NIGHTMARE'
At a news conference on Monday, police and firefighters
described a dramatic scene of running up an emergency escape
chute to board the burning aircraft, handing out knives so crew
could cut trapped people free, and tearing away seats and
luggage to clear choked exit paths.
"It was like something out of a nightmare," said San
Francisco police officer Jim Cunningham, describing a plane
cabin filling with thick black smoke as rescuers worked to free
a few trapped passengers even after most had gotten off safely.
The call to evacuate the plane was made 90 seconds after it
came to a halt on the runway, Hersman said on Wednesday. The
crew first told passengers to remain seated, but an evacuation
began after a flight attendant reported seeing fire outside the
The NTSB will examine whether proper evacuation procedures
were followed, Hersman said, adding that "hindsight is 20/20."
Some passengers on the taped 911 calls reported not seeing
ambulances and fire trucks.
But emergency responders say procedures call for not
bringing vehicles too close to the scene, in order to avoid
chaos and collisions. In this case, there was also a worry that
the plane could explode, said Mindy Talmadge, a spokesman for
the San Francisco Fire Department.
"There's active fire, and there's fuel leaking, and there's
debris all over the field, the last thing you want to do is take
a chance of the plane exploding," she said in a phone interview
on Thursday. A fire burned through much of the plane's cabin,
although Hersman said the fuel tanks did not rupture.
Dudgeon said procedures called for a methodical approach in
identifying the injured, starting in one spot and working
forward. That could potentially leave some victims unattended
for many minutes.
"If you start to worry about go here, go there, you miss
things," Dudgeon said. "As a paramedic, when you're doing
triage, you start where you are. You keep moving forward until
you've triaged everybody."
Naj Meshkati, a professor at the University of Southern
California who studies aviation safety, said he recalled other
plane crashes where passenger groups were overlooked initially.
"In this day and age that we have the GPS and the
surveillance camera system, I think something should be changed
and could be changed," he said, adding that overall emergency
response at the crash "worked beautifully."
Some 40 to 50 ambulances were sent to the crash site, said
Dr. John Brown, medical director for Emergency Management
Services, San Francisco. Some left the scene with up to five
injured people in them to make sure the critically injured
arrived quickly at hospitals, he said.
'OVERALL, SYSTEM WORKED WELL'
The most sensitive issue for responders in the aftermath of
the crash was whether they may have inadvertently caused one of
Robert Foucrault, coroner for San Mateo County, where the
airport is located, said autopsy results on how two Chinese
teenage girls died would be released in about two weeks.
Emergency personnel declined to comment specifically on the
matter. Dudgeon said that generally speaking, emergency-vehicle
drivers are trained to look everywhere around them. "Everybody's
eyes are everywhere," he said. "It's heads on a swivel."
The triage of the injured resulted in some non-English
speaking victims being separated from their families. Most of
the passengers on the flight were Chinese and Korean, and it is
not clear if any of the emergency responders spoke those
Passenger Eugene Rah recalled helping a non-English speaker
whose injured wife was sent to San Francisco General Hospital.
"He was very nervous," Rah said on Monday, adding that for
several hours the man was not sure where his wife was or what
condition she was in.
Medical personnel say the most important thing is to make
sure the most critically injured patients get treatment as
quickly as possible, even if it means separating families.
"The psycho-social issues are real, but they're trumped by
the medical issues," said Chris Barton, chief of emergency
medicine at San Francisco General Hospital, which received 66
injured passengers and crew.
In some cases, when uninjured Korean or Chinese children
arrived at the hospital with their injured parents, the hospital
admitted the children to the pediatric ward so they would have a
place to stay and would not be separated from their recuperating
parents, he said.
Barton and other area hospital staffers said the response by
emergency personnel on the crash site was impressive, with
patients arriving promptly and with initial care, such as drip
systems for intravenous fluids, already handled.
"Overall, the system worked well," Barton said. "The triage,
That was not always apparent to passengers on the scene.
"There's not enough medics out here," one 911 caller said,
saying a woman on the runway was "pretty much burned, very
severely on the head, and we don't know what to do.
"She will probably die soon if she doesn't get help," the
female caller said. "Is there any way we can assist her?"
To another caller, who said he had yet to see a fire truck,
the dispatcher said, "We are responding, trust me."
(Reporting by Kristina Cooke, Sarah McBride and Alistair Barr
in San Francisco.; Editing by Jonathan Weber and Peter Cooney)