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Dead Right There

The crash, the victim, and the firefighter who took the fall: A special report on the Asiana Airlines disaster.

A firefighter points to Ye Meng Yuan. One responder identified her as DRT (“dead

A firefighter points to Ye Meng Yuan. One responder identified her as DRT (“dead right there”); others thought that she was a doll.

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A firefighter points to Ye Meng Yuan. One responder identified her as DRT (“dead

Covered in foam, the stricken plane sends up clouds of acrid smoke. The passengers have just been evacuated.

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A firefighter points to Ye Meng Yuan. One responder identified her as DRT (“dead

Firefighter Elyse Duckett was aggressively investigated and wrongly blamed, in spite of contravening evidence.

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It was all about to go terribly wrong. The plane would crash and three people would die. A firefighter would be betrayed, the top brass would lose their grip, and what could have been a shining moment of heroism would turn sour and sad. There would be nasty media stories and lawsuits and accusations and bitterness—and the Chinese girl whose mysterious fate started the infighting would still be dead. But for the passengers aboard Asiana Airlines Flight 214 on the morning of July 6, 2013, it was just a routine approach to San Francisco International Airport.

The flight attendants made their final seat belt checks and buckled themselves in for landing as the Boeing 777 bore down on runway 28L. Ye Meng Yuan, a petite 16-year-old en route from China to a church camp with her friends, sat in the plane’s second-to-last row. Passengers looked out at San Francisco Bay, glinting in the summer sun. One man, checking the water for windsurfers and sailboats, noted that the plane was flying unusually low, so low that the engines were kicking up walls of water as if the plane were a speedboat. It was 11:27 a.m.

As the nose of the airliner cleared the water, the plane’s tail smashed into the rocky seawall at the end of the runway. The tail and both engines were sheared off. Passengers screamed. A father threw his body over his two kids. The fuselage skidded on its steel belly, then reared up tail first, spinning to the left almost 360 degrees. The plane came to rest nearly half a mile away from the point of impact.

Twelve seconds after impact, an Alert Three was sent to all three fire stations at the airport: “Plane crash.” Piercing alarms sounded. The 17 firefighters on duty suited up, ran to their rigs, and climbed into engines and enormous neon-yellow aircraft rescue and firefighting (ARFF) vehicles, 35 to 40 feet long and weighing 63,000 pounds empty. The tower cleared them to cross the runways, and they barreled toward the smoking aircraft.

On board the plane, the chaos of the crash turned to an eerie quiet as shock set in. People had dirt in their mouths. Seats angled wildly back and to the side, and ceiling panels, insulation, and oxygen masks pitched downward from the ceiling. Passengers were covered in blood; they didn’t know if it was theirs or someone else’s. Low moans came from the injured. Chance had wrought a random path through the fuselage—the difference of a few seat numbers meant the difference between a sore knee and a broken spine, between standing up unscathed and being catapulted from the plane. Because the tail had been torn off, the rear seats were the worst places to be. Two flight attendants and two teenage Chinese girls sitting near Ye Meng Yuan had been hurled out of the jagged opening. The flight attendants, strapped into their jump seats, were seriously injured but survived. The Chinese girls, Wang Linjia and Liu Yipeng, hadn’t been wearing seat belts, and their unprotected bodies smashed violently into the ground. Wang was killed instantly. Liu died in the hospital six days later.

A blow-up slide inflated out of the fuselage’s left doors, and passengers crawled over seats to slide down. While some sprinted pell-mell from the plane, others turned to snap photos of their San Francisco arrival with their smartphones. Somehow, Ye Meng Yuan had come to lie on the dirt forward of the left wing, just feet from the slide’s base. Had she, like her two doomed companions, been thrown from the plane? Had she crawled there herself? Had she somehow been evacuated? Even now, nearly a year after the disaster, the answer is unclear.

A fire started in one of the jet’s engines, sending up clouds of black smoke that could be seen by firefighters speeding south on the freeway from San Francisco. Another fire ignited in the insulation lining the fuselage, producing heavy smoke inside the plane as the passengers continued shooting down the slide. Some of the 3,000 gallons of jet fuel remaining in the plane’s tanks began pumping out from exposed fuel lines, filling the air with the acrid smell of diesel.

Firefighters are taught that they have from 90 seconds to three minutes after a crash before a plane may go up in flames. The first priority is to get everyone out before that. The first firefighter arrived at the plane two and a half minutes after the crash. Less than a minute later, the first ARFF pulled up. Two minutes after that, all five of the airport’s firefighting companies were jockeying for position to apply oxygen-suppressing foam to the fuselage and the surrounding ground.

Several of the arriving firefighters noticed a motionless form curled up in a fetal position in front of the left wing: Ye Meng Yuan. They would later tell crash investigators that they thought the teenager, covered in the brown dust settling around the airfield, was already dead—or not even human. An airport safety officer thought that she was a “big doll.” To firefighter Roger Phillips, she looked like a CPR mannequin because of her waxen face—eyes rolled back, features in a “grimace.” Phillips directed Rescue 10, a rig driven by a firefighter named Jimmy Yee, around the girl, and he pointed her out to Lieutenant Chrissy Emmons, who had exited another rig and was heading on foot toward the plane. Emmons said that she looked at the girl for three seconds. Not seeing her move or breathe, she thought, “That’s our first casualty”—DRT in firefighter parlance, or “dead right there”—and hurried on toward the smoking plane. Phillips went onto the plane as well. Nobody checked the girl’s breathing. The shift captain in charge of the response had not yet arrived, and a lieutenant set up the incident command. Later, some firefighters would say that the absence of leadership, along with inadequate radio communications, may have prevented Ye from being protected.

The firefighters had done a quick, probably unconscious calculation: A plane full of people that could explode into flames at any moment versus a girl they thought was dead, or not even a person. The plane and its 304 living passengers won. Nobody moved the girl from the area where rigs the weight of four elephants were rolling up to douse the fire from their trunk-like turrets. Firefighters climbed up the evacuation slide and strode through the aisles. The rescuers pulled one unmoving man to his feet, and he started walking. They strapped others to body boards and lowered them out of the back of the plane as black smoke filled the fuselage. Less than nine minutes later, all the passengers were off, and the critical work of assessing their injuries on a nearby runway was under way.

But the fires were still burning and the jet fuel still leaking. Rescue 10, the rig closest to Ye, joined the other rigs in spraying foam on the plane. After laying down an initial blanket of foam, driver Yee began maneuvering toward the burning fuselage. As he did so, he drove over Ye’s lower body, which was partly covered in foam. Then he backed over the girl.

Ten minutes later, at 12:01 p.m., Rescue 37, driven by a firefighter named Elyse Duckett, pulled up to the same area. What happened next would forever change Duckett’s life and her relationship with the department. It would lead to accusations of deceit, to a media relations crisis, and, eventually, to a lawsuit against the department.

Duckett shot her rig’s foam into the burning fuselage through the open side door. She ran out of foam and turned back to the firehouse for a refill. Ye, lying in Duckett’s path, was now completely covered in foam. As Duckett pulled forward, she too rolled over Ye.

Eighteen minutes later, the fire inside the plane (one firefighter at the scene likened it to “a high-rise building on its side”) was out, leaving behind a hulking, blackened carcass with no roof.

By 1:01 p.m., the last ambulance had sped off with seriously injured passengers. Remarkably, there were to be only three fatalities—Ye and the other two girls, all of whom had attended the same school in China. The chief of surgery at San Francisco General Hospital, to which 25 of the ambulances pulled up with crash survivors, later said, “Whoever triaged these patients at the airport did a fabulous job, because they got to us the sickest patients in the shortest period of time, or I don’t think those patients would have survived, truly.”

The firefighters had rescued hundreds of people from a smoke-filled plane that could have become a death trap at any moment. At the risk of their own lives, they had saved 304 souls. It was one of the San Francisco Fire Department’s finest hours.

Two minutes after Duckett drove off to get more foam, a grim-faced firefighter approached a fire attack chief standing near the plane. “Chief,” he said, “we got a body over here.” The chief looked at the 102-pound body lying in the center of wheel tracks cutting through the foot-thick foam. Its skull and legs were crushed flat. He said, “Oh my god.”

Page two: "Are you a hero if you save 304 passengers, but run over one?"