A girl thrown from a plane that crashed at San Francisco International Airport died before she was twice run over by fire trucks, according to a city-issued report that contradicted a coroner’s finding that the teen survived the crash and was killed by the vehicles.
Instead, the city said in a report obtained Wednesday that 16-year-old Ye Meng Yuan died when she hit the ground after she was thrown from the back of an Asiana jet that had its tail ripped off.
The conclusion was contained in a report the city filed with the National Transportation Safety Board. City officials say it is based on NTSB reports and interviews by federal investigators; the city did not conduct an autopsy or consult with medical experts.
The city said in its document that neither of two NTSB reports noted dust, dirt, debris or firefighting foam in Meng Yuan’s trachea or lung tissues. The city also said that NTSB investigators found she had not buckled her seat belt for the landing, based on interviews with survivors and an inspection that found her seat belt attached and unbuckled.
San Mateo County Coroner Robert Foucrault said the conclusions in the city report were not accurate.
“We did our examination and we determined that the young lady was alive when she was struck by the fire trucks,” Foucrault said. “The death certificate says what it says. If someone wants to put a spin on something they can do that.”
While announcing the results of his autopsy last summer, Foucrault declined to go into detail on how he determined the teenager was alive before she was struck but did say there was internal hemorrhaging that indicated her heart was still beating at the time.
Attorney Gretchen Nelson, who is representing the families of crash victims in a claim against the city of San Francisco, said lawyers reviewed the city’s findings about the death “and we do not agree.”
The city’s report, prepared by airport and fire department officials, is one of hundreds of documents the NTSB will review before concluding its accident investigation.
Some documents describe how after the crash, Meng Yuan was struck twice by emergency vehicles on the runway — once by a fire rig spraying foam and again 11 minutes later by a second truck that was turning around to fetch water.
Firefighters told authorities she appeared to be dead — she was covered with dust, silent, not moving — so they raced on toward the fire. The NTSB records included excerpts from the coroner’s report but do not include information about when or how the girl died.
San Francisco airport spokesman Doug Yakel said officials with the facility didn’t intend to dispute the coroner’s conclusion but had depended solely on NTSB records to conclude the girl had died when she hit the ground.
NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway said agency officials do not put personal information such as causes of death in their public files, but San Francisco officials could have looked at the coroner’s reports.
Aviation attorney Ron Goldman, whose firm is suing the airline and aircraft manufacturer on behalf of 14 survivors, said city officials are trying to avoid hefty payouts, and are not going to admit anything in public records that could later be used against them.
“The city has an ax to grind here because their liability could hang in the balance of whether she was already dead or whether she was alive and they failed to move her to a safe place,” Goldman said.
David Levine, a law professor at University of California’s Hastings College of the Law, said the city attorney’s document is one party’s version of what happened.
The city says two things, Levine said: The girl was dead when she was run over. And even if she wasn’t dead, it’s not the city’s fault because things were so chaotic and dangerous when she was struck that no reasonable jury or judge could blame the city.
“If you believe the city’s report, damages are going to be zero,” Levine said. “If you believe the coroner, the family is entitled to millions.”
Levine said there’s no surprise the city would try to cast the best possible light on itself and its performance that day and not concede any liability. From afar, Levine thinks it will be difficult to prove where the girl’s fatal injuries came from — the plane or fire trucks.
The way she died doesn’t ease the emotional trauma at the San Francisco Fire Department, where firefighters were shaken after rescuers drove over Meng Yuan two times, spokeswoman Mindy Talmadge said Wednesday.
“It doesn’t make it better or worse, really,” she said. “It’s just psychologically, it’s a difficult thing. Period.”