Fire trucks surround an Asiana Airlines Boeing 777 on the runway at San Francisco International Airport after it crashed last July. (Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)
Fire trucks surround an Asiana Airlines Boeing 777 on the runway at San Francisco International Airport after it crashed last July. (Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)

By Grace Rubenstein and Mina Kim

A video obtained by the San Francisco Chronicle sheds new light on how two fire vehicles struck and killed a teenager who had survived last July’s Asiana Airlines crash at SFO.

In a report published Friday, Chronicle reporter Jaxon Van Derbeken says the video is from a camera mounted on the dashboard of the first truck that hit 16-year-old Ye Meng Yuan as she lay near the damaged plane. It shows that another firefighter pointed out Ye to the driver of the vehicle less than 15 minutes before he ran over her. And the same rig sprayed much of the fire-retardant foam that covered and hid Ye, who was still alive, from other drivers.

Van Derbeken reported the video shows emergency personnel looking at the girl — whom they later reported they thought was dead — but at no point does the video show them directly checking her for signs of life. They also did not mark her with a casualty flag, as is common at disaster scenes.

The Chronicle says a source provided the video on condition that it not be shared publicly because it is so graphic. Van Derbeken talked Friday with KQED’s Mina Kim about the video and the new perspective it gives on the Asiana tragedy:

In his story, Van Derbeken described the sequence of events it shows:

  • The rig called Rescue 10, driven by San Francisco firefighter Jimmy Yee, approaches the smoking plane within minutes after the 11:27 a.m. crash.
  • Another firefighter waves his arms to direct Yee around the girl, who is lying alone on an open field of grass. Other passengers have already evacuated the area.
  • Rescue 10 drives around Ye and sprays foam on the plane wing.
  • Yee circles the rig around to its original spot and starts spraying foam in the area in front of the wing (arguably to protect a fuel leak, Van Derbeken said), partially covering the girl with foam. By now there are no firefighters near her. An autopsy would later reveal that she is still alive during this time.
  • Then, at 11:50 a.m., Van Derbeken said, “The rig video shows him headed straight for her. It’s a kind of a perilous thing to watch, because there’s a partly covered human who is doomed, arguably, by this rig coming straight for it.” Rescue 10 runs over Ye.
  • Video from a separate, helmet-mounted camera shows that Ye is completely obscured by foam 11 minutes later, when a different rig runs over her. Van Derbeken said it’s unclear whether she is still alive before this second hit.

The San Francisco Fire Department has not responded directly to the video but has called Ye’s death a “tragic accident.” Van Derbeken’s story included this account from firefighter Roger Phillips, the one who initially motioned Rescue 10 around Ye:

Phillips later told investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board that the girl was in the fetal position, her eyes rolled up, her face waxen and wearing a grimace.

Ye’s parents filed a claim against the city of San Francisco earlier this week, saying rescuers were reckless and poorly trained. The city has 45 days to respond, and if it denies the claim, Ye’s parents may sue. A key fight in any legal case is likely to be about whether the legal protections that normally cover firefighters working in the line of duty should apply.

Van Derbeken said the video evidence raises questions about that.

“Its importance lies as much in what it doesn’t show as what it does. It doesn’t show a chaotic situation. It doesn’t show many, many people scurrying about or victims being triaged on the ground. It shows one victim being identified as such and this rig directed around it. … The idea that this is a highly dynamic and complex situation — it’s one truck, one plane, one victim that’s out there in plain view, initially.”

Ye was one of three Chinese teens who died in the July 6 crash. The 304 other passengers on Flight 214 from Seoul survived.

Her death has prompted new training for firefighters who work at San Francisco International Airport, including 40 to 80 hours of advanced instruction at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.

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