First Responders Hailed As Heroes After Plane Crash

Investigators in San Francisco are poring over the wreckage of Asiana Airlines Flight 214. Two people were killed on Saturday when the plane crash-landed. Firefighters positioned themselves to knock down most of the fire in the fuselage with foam.

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More details are emerging about the crash of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 in San Francisco over the weekend. Two people died and about 50 were seriously injured. Investigators are poring over the wreckage scene and examining debris strewn over several hundred feet along a runway that the Boeing 777 missed upon approach. We're also hearing some gripping accounts from first responders; police, fire and emergency crews who are being hailed as heroes.

NPR's Richard Gonzales begins our coverage from San Francisco.

RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: Fire Lieutenant Chrissie Emmons is assigned to the San Francisco Airport, where she's accustomed to hearing routine warnings about an incoming aircraft that might have mechanical problems. But at about 11:25 Saturday morning, Emmons says she heard something dramatically different.

LIEUTENANT CHRISSIE EMMONS: The communication from the tower was: Alert Three, Alert Three, plane crash, plane crash. It was a female that dispatched us and I knew from her voice that the event we were going to was real.

GONZALES: As Emmons and her driver hurried to the crash site, she saw a huge column of black smoke. Passengers were already sliding out of the plane on evacuation chutes.

EMMONS: Adrenaline was flowing at this time and I had to keep reminding my driver - I hope he doesn't get mad - but I had to keep reminding him if we don't get there we're not going to help anybody.

GONZALES: Fire Lieutenant Dave Monteverdi was approaching the burning plane from another angle.

LIEUTENANT DAVE MONTEVERDI: And the whole time we were just looking. And it just seemed to be surreal like it wasn't happening.

GONZALES: The firefighters positioned themselves to knock down most of the fire in the fuselage with foam. But they weren't sure if anyone was still on the plane. So Monteverdi and Emmons ran up an evacuation chute dragging a water hose into the burning plane. With another firefighter, Mike Kirk, they found and extracted four injured passengers from the rear of the plane. Outside, jet fuel was still leaking from the wings. Inside the plane, Emmons says conditions were changing again for the worse.

EMMONS: But by the time we removed the final victim, the conditions were that the fire was banking down on us, we had heavy black smoke. So I feel very lucky and blessed that we were able to get those people out in that time.

GONZALES: More than 180 passengers were hospitalized. The most severely injured were sitting in the back of the plane, says National Transportation Safety Board Chairwoman Deborah Hersman. She says debris, strewn around the air field, suggests that the tail section of the Boeing 777 took the brunt of the impact against a seawall short of the run way.

DEBORAH HERSMAN: The lower portion of the tail cone is in the rocks at the seawall. And there was a significant piece of the tail of this aircraft that was in the water.

GONZALES: Still, Hersman cautioned reporters not to reach conclusions about how and why Asiana Flight 214 crashed, as investigators are still in the opening stages of their work. Such investigations are multi-faceted.

THOMAS ANTHONY: In the case of aircraft accidents, it is never one thing.

GONZALES: Thomas Anthony is the director of the Aviation Safety and Security Program at the University of Southern California. He says aircraft accidents are always the result of a chain of events.

ANTHONY: When we answer the question what happened, that only gets us sort of on the ball field. Then we have to answer the question why it happened or, even more appropriately, how could this have happened, especially assuming the fact that nobody in that airline, nobody in that cockpit wanted it to happen.

GONZALES: Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.

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