San Francisco Police Officer Jim Cunningham was sucking down oxygen, refueling his weary lungs, when his phone started ringing with his wife's frantic call: He had just charged into the burning hulk of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 -- without a respirator or protective clothing -- to help pull the last several survivors from the wreckage.
A paramedic had to answer his phone for him, briefly terrifying his wife, Roberta. "What were you thinking?" she would later ask, reminding him of their 18-month-old daughter at home.
On Monday, in shaken voices at a packed news conference, Cunningham and other first-responders to Saturday's crash-landing at San Francisco International Airport told their stories of the chaotic and harrowing rescue of dozens of dazed, stunned or trapped passengers on the downed Boeing 777.
But along with the rescuers' heroism might have come a tragic, deadly accident. San Francisco Fire Department Capt. Dale Carnes acknowledged Monday an earlier report that one of Saturday's two fatalities -- two 16-year-old Chinese girls who had been seated in the plane's rear, bound for a church summer camp -- might have been hit by an emergency vehicle.
"At this time, because we have not clearly defined or established those facts, we cannot answer your questions," Carnes said, adding he didn't want to compromise an ongoing investigation.
The rescuers who spoke at the Monday news conference were a mix of veteran
police and firefighters; to a person, they had never been through anything quite like it. San Francisco Fire Lt. Chrissy Emmons said most alerts at the airport's "crash house" station warn of incoming aircraft with mechanical problems; the fire trucks roll, but rarely are needed. Yet when a female dispatcher called "alert 3, alert 3, plane crash, plane crash," just before 11:30 a.m. Saturday, Emmons "knew from her voice that the event we were going to was real."
Cunningham was finishing a routine check of an airport building when he heard another officer's calm voice over his radio, calling "code 33, 777 down." He flagged down a nearby ambulance and told the driver to follow his police car through a security gate and onto the runway.
He and another officer went first to the front of the plane, where flight attendants tended to older passengers groaning on the ground; other flight attendants called down from the plane's door, pleading for knives to cut passengers free of their seat belts. The officers handed up their knives but saw the plane's wing was "gushing fuel right next to us," Cunningham said, so they began moving everyone back.
"It was absorbing into the ground," he said. "I'm thinking, if this spark hits this dry grass and fuel ..."
Emmons' truck parked near the plane's nose and firefighters began spraying foam on flames licking at the fuselage. Then she circled around to join Lt. Dave Monteverdi and firefighter Mike Kirk. The three of them charged up an inflatable chute as passengers slid down to escape the smoking plane.
Monteverdi went left toward the cockpit. Emmons and Kirk took a fire hose to the right to knock down flames and search for passengers. "Most of the fire was in the front of the plane," Emmons said.
Then Kirk radioed that he'd found several passengers near the plane's mangled rear.
"We had elderly, we had a woman with a gentleman who was standing over her, we had someone who was partially trapped, as it turned out there was a small person stuck between the seats," Emmons said. "The back of the plane did not hold up as well as the front. ... The fuselage was definitely more impacted."
Monteverdi found nobody in the plane's forward section, so he joined Emmons and Kirk. As another rescue crew came in from the rear, they all worked to free those last few passengers.
Cunningham said, "It didn't look like they had enough people in there," so even without any breathing apparatus, he went in too, clearing debris so passengers could be removed.
San Francisco Police Lt. Gaetano Caltagirone saw Cunningham enter the burning airplane. "I couldn't let him go inside the plane and just be there by himself." So Caltagirone went in too, as the flames began to grow.
"The next thing you hear is crackling and popping," Caltagirone said. "You want to save lives. I also have to make sure that he (Cunningham) goes home. When is it time to leave?
"It was so surreal, there was so much chaos going on, but it was quiet," he said -- at least, it seemed so. "Everybody was doing what they were trained to do."
Caltagirone found a young brother and sister, the girl wearing only one shoe, the boy barefoot; he put the girl on his back, and put her socks on the brother so he could walk. The last person Cunningham and Emmons helped off the plane was an elderly man who they had to stand upright and help out. By then, "the fire was banking down on us, we had heavy black smoke," Emmons said. "So I feel very blessed we were able to get those people off the plane in that time."
Cunningham ducked back in for a last look to ensure nobody had been left behind; a wall of smoke rushed toward him as he got out.
Fire rescue Capt. Tony Molloy oversaw triage and treatment near the runway: red for the most severely injured, yellow for those less so, green for the least hurt. Reds were evacuated to local hospitals within minutes, quickly followed by yellows, Molloy said; greens were taken to the international terminal to be triaged again, and more than 100 of them eventually went to hospitals, too.
As of Monday, 17 passengers remained at San Francisco General Hospital while eight remained at Stanford Hospital; of those 25, seven remained in critical condition, including one child. The two hospitals saw a total of 117 patients from the crash. Wang Chuan, a Chinese consulate spokesman, was at San Francisco General on Monday. "It's one of our top priorities to take care of and comfort the injured people," he said, carrying a purple orchid, a symbol of support for the Chinese victims.
Caltagirone at Saturday's end had told his officers: "Go home and hug your kids." But exhausted as they were, everyone reported for duty again Sunday, leaving their commanding officer inspired.
"They didn't worry about themselves," Caltagirone said, "they worried about the lives of the people they needed to save."
Copyright 2013 - The Oakland Tribune
McClatchy-Tribune News Service