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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Covered in foam, the stricken plane sends up clouds of acrid smoke. The passengers have just been evacuated.
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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.”
Perhaps even more than members of the military, who must navigate the fraught moral territory of war and politics, firefighters are seen as pure American heroes. From the 1906 catastrophe to the 1989 earthquake, the bravery of firefighters is seared into the history of San Francisco. Nationally, 9/11 catapulted firefighters to a status of almost Christ-like martyrdom. “Firefighters could do no wrong after 9/11,” says Dave Statter, a firefighting public relations expert. “I always kid my cop friends that even a drug dealer will wave to me when I’m rolling down the street,” one firefighter says.
But being anointed as a hero has a dark side. It’s a status that leaves you with a long way to fall, even when things go right. One fire chief cautions departments nationwide against taking needless risks during fires in order to live up to the cultural expectation of heroism—what he calls the “duty to die syndrome.”
And when things go awry, firefighters take it hard. “Since they’re so demanding of themselves and the public is so demanding of them, they have a really hard time adjusting to mistakes,” says Ellen Kirschman, a Redwood City–based therapist who hosts trauma workshops for first responders. “Firefighters want to help people, and when they can’t, it’s terribly disturbing to them.”
Absent what happened to Ye Meng Yuan, the Asiana crash could have been San Francisco’s “miracle on the Hudson”—the emergency river landing by pilot Sully Sullenberger, after which firefighters helped ferry all 155 passengers to safety. But Ye did end up outside the plane, and two rigs did run over her. And so the moment of international spotlight for the San Francisco Fire Department will always carry a dark asterisk, one that doesn’t square with an easy definition of heroism. Are you a hero if you save 304 passengers, but run over one? Is everyone a hero except the ones who messed up? Who did mess up? And if “hero” isn’t the right word, what’s a better one?
For one chaotic, warlike, adrenaline-fueled hour last July 6, the firefighters at SFO forgot about daily on-the-job gripes and the decades-old scars within the department—the abysmal representation of minorities and women that led a court to order increased hiring among those groups, the firehouse tensions, the accusations of discrimination, the complaints about mandatory overtime—and tried to save lives. Once the fire was out, though, less lofty concerns came into play: liability, lawsuits, reputations, and careers. One firefighter says that a commander ordered the firefighters to stand for hours on the airfield without food or water or bathrooms, “like prisoners,” while cops started mapping the area, which had suddenly become a crime scene. The word among the firefighters was that Ye had been dead from the beginning. And yet here they all were, essentially wrongful death suspects. “All the big rig drivers were like, ‘I hope it wasn’t me,’” says a firefighter who was at the scene. “It was just a sense of dread, like, oh man, is this going to get pinned on somebody, or how’s this going to go down? No one wanted to see anyone go down for it.”
Through extensive reporting, including interviews with 15 firefighters (two of them responders to the crash), one thing is clear: The San Francisco Fire Department’s response to what happened to Ye Meng Yuan—and in particular, its spotlight on one firefighter, Duckett—was anything but heroic.
Elyse Duckett is a young-looking 49, with a shaved head and muscular build that often lead strangers to mistake her for a man. “[People] just see me as a guy,” she said in a 2003 documentary, The Butch Mystique. “If I’m not looking busty, I can walk right into the men’s room and no one will say a thing to me.” She was known in the department as the firefighter with the most experience at the airport, with 19 years of service there.
Duckett could serve as the poster child of the 1988 consent decree in which a federal judge mandated that the longtime white- and male-dominated department must aim for 40 percent minorities and 10 percent women in its ranks. A black woman, Duckett was seemingly a perfect recruit into the first post–consent decree class in 1989. Strong and athletic, she’d been a track star in field events at Lowell High School and was recruited to Arizona State University on a track scholarship, continuing to compete even after becoming a mother at 20. She was also the rare woman who came with prior firefighting experience, having been a state forest firefighter. Once in the department, Duckett joined the Black Firefighters Association, which advocated for African-American members of the department, and sat on a review committee that vetted discrimination complaints. She had dealt with an uncomfortable situation herself soon after joining the department, when a battalion chief took issue with her braids. Eventually, she decided to shave her head, sealing her physical identity as an out butch lesbian.
Over her 25 years of service, Duckett filed several discrimination complaints against the SFFD, making her a squeaky wheel in a fraternal culture where some women firefighters say that male colleagues second-guess their every move during a fire and often blame them when things go wrong. “When we used to sit around the dinner table, and I was just listening day after day and watch after watch, I just couldn’t hold it in anymore,” says one former firefighter who worked during the transition in the ’90s. “I said, ‘What did you talk about before there were women in the department?’” Some women say that things have improved. “If you can do the job, you’re respected,” says a recently retired female firefighter, adding that it was the “different or quirky” people who were picked on. “I never felt targeted.” (Most of the firefighters interviewed for this article insisted on remaining anonymous. Three weeks after the crash, the SFFD ordered all firefighters not to speak to the press about it, citing a National Transportation Safety Board [NTSB] directive.)
As the first woman assigned to the airport, Duckett got the respect of other firefighters with her encyclopedic recall of the rules and tools of the trade. If you wanted to know about the layout of the terminals or the functions of a rig, you asked Duckett. If you wanted to trade your cooking shift for a night watch, you asked Duckett, a superb cook who can replicate any dish she’s ever tried. Many colleagues defend her professionalism. “I thought she was pretty open-minded and reasonable,” says a female former firefighter who served on the discrimination committee with her. “She wasn’t someone to blow anything out of proportion. I don’t remember her being strident in seeing things to benefit a certain faction.”
The airport fire station where Duckett worked, Station 2, is known as the Crash House. Before Asiana 214 came in too low and too slow, that nick-name seemed mostly theoretical: There had not been a serious crash at San Francisco International Airport since 1972. Firefighters stationed in the city see the airport as a cushy assignment. Airport firefighters spend their time responding mostly to medical calls, dousing the rare plane that lands with hot brakes, and running daily drills for crashes that most never expect to see in their career. You have to have five years of experience to get the assignment, and even more seniority to get the Crash House, where many are nearing the end of their career. “They’re not like super go-getters,” says one airport firefighter, “but they’re experienced and well trained.” One former firefighter calls the station “retirement central.”
But on July 6, the drill was real.
When the Boeing 777 crashed, Duckett was returning from a trip to buy groceries for the firehouse. She learned about the crash from a shaken security guard at the airport gate. Hurrying back to the house after everyone else had left, she suited up and jumped into Rescue 37. She drove out to the plane, attacked the fire, backed out, refilled, and returned to the scene.
A San Francisco police hit-and-run investigator arrived to map the scene within an hour. But Duckett had no reason to suspect that it had been her rig that had hit Ye. No one had told her that there was a body on the ground until both Yee’s Rescue 10 and her Rescue 37 had run over Ye, after which the girl’s body had been covered in a yellow tarp. A driver in one of the behemoth ARFFs would not feel the impact of a 100-pound object under its massive tires, and by the time that Duckett’s rig contacted it, Ye’s body was completely hidden by foam. Out on the airfield, Duckett spoke to her boss at the Crash House, assistant deputy chief Dale Carnes, who told her that it looked like it had been Rescue 9 that had run over Ye. According to Duckett, she asked Carnes if he wanted her to be drug tested (the protocol after anything goes awry during a rescue), as the drivers of other rigs would be that day. He told her that she didn’t need to be tested, and she wasn’t.
Police had scrambled for any and all footage from the surrounding towers after the crash, and three days later, on July 9, front-row video of the rollover emerged. Fire battalion chief Mark Johnson had documented the response with a personal camera on his helmet, which he handed over to Chief Joanne Hayes-White. She and deputy chief of operations Mark Gonzales watched the footage and identified Duckett’s Rescue 37 rolling over Ye’s foam-covered body. Hayes-White gave the video to the police.
The next day, July 10, Duckett was interviewed separately by both the NTSB and the police. No one from the fire department had notified her of the helmet-cam video. Duckett described her rig’s movements at the crash site while Carnes listened in. Duckett told the investigators that she couldn’t have run over Ye because Johnson had informed her of the girl on the ground, covered in a yellow tarp, and she had backed up to avoid her. After Duckett left, Carnes made a fateful judgment call about her testimony. He told police, Hayes-White, and Gonzales that Duckett had lied.
Though Duckett did not accurately describe her actions to the NTSB and the police, Carnes’s accusation was a harsh and rushed assessment. Duckett’s attorneys claim that in the heat of action, Duckett understandably became confused about the sequence of events. “It’s just a very chaotic scene,” says John Hurley, one of Duckett’s attorneys. “You’re responding to a burning plane, and it’s a highly stressful and complex situation.”
Six months later, Carnes would formally retract his accusation. In a letter to Hayes-White sent on January 24, 2014, Carnes admitted that his “belief at the time [that Duckett was lying] was premature and wrong.” Carnes noted that Duckett “was not the only person on scene who had recollections that did not exactly match what was on the video of the incident.”
The day after Duckett’s interview, a second fire department video emerged that showed which rig had hit Ye first—and it wasn’t Duckett’s. The video footage from a camera mounted on Rescue 10 shows the response scene before Duckett arrived. Roger Phillips points out the dust-covered girl to Rescue 10’s driver, Jimmy Yee, an amiable 19-year veteran of the department whose brother also works at one of the airport stations. The footage shows firefighters walking past the girl en route to the plane. Yee drives around the body to spray foam on the plane and the surrounding ground. Minutes later, with the body partially covered in foam, he drives over it. Shortly after, he backs over it again, leaving blood-stained foam behind.
A police investigator watched the video on July 13. When the fire department’s top brass first watched it remains unknown. The department will not say, citing the NTSB’s order. But Duckett’s attorneys believe that the brass watched the video before Duckett’s interrogation. That question is at the heart of the lawsuit subsequently filed by Duckett against the department. And, along with the betrayal of Duckett by an informed insider who leaked her name to the media, it’s also at the heart of the department’s flawed response to the accidental crushing of Ye.
The stakes for the department became much higher on July 19, when Robert Foucrault, the San Mateo County coroner, stood on the steps of his office and told reporters the cause of Ye Meng Yuan’s death: multiple blunt injuries from being run over by a truck. The way that the injuries had hemorrhaged indicated that her heart had still been beating at the time she was crushed.
Behind Foucrault stood the fire department brass in their military-sharp dress uniforms. Hayes-White stoically accepted the blame, saying, “She was on the ground when our rigs, one rig or possibly two, made contact with her....There’s not a lot of words to describe how badly we feel, how sorry we feel.”
Duckett didn’t know anything about the announcement. On July 12, she and her wife, Jennifer Winship, had left for a scuba diving trip that they’d booked before the crash. When they returned to their San Leandro home on July 21, Duckett got a call from the top brass, summoning her to a meeting the next day with the other crash responders. She didn’t know it yet, but someone in the fire or police department had leaked her name to Dan Noyes from ABC7 as the person who had first run over Ye. Noyes started calling and texting the next day. Duckett was about to take the fall for the department, if not internally, then in the court of public opinion.
When Duckett walked into her meeting with the top brass at the airport on July 22, she was surprised to see that it was not a meeting with all the crash responders. Just her. Also present were Carnes, Hayes-White, and Gonzales, as well as someone from the department’s stress unit, which counsels firefighters. According to Duckett’s lawsuit, Gonzales insisted on her guilt and questioned her in an “aggressive, accusatory, and hostile manner.” He told Duckett that they had video showing that she was the one who had run over the girl. Gonzales got out of his seat and leaned toward Duckett over the table, blurting out, “We have video. Do you want to see it? I can describe it to you. Do you want me to describe it to you?”
Duckett, still unaware of the existence of the Rescue 10 video, demanded to watch the video. Hayes-White said that there was going to be an internal investigation of Ye’s death, that a firefighters’ bill of rights was being mailed to Duckett, and that there would be a formal interrogation the next day. During the meeting, ABC7’s Noyes again called Duckett.
The next day, July 23, Duckett returned for the official interrogation by the SFFD’s Investigative Services Bureau. She still hadn’t been told about the Rescue 10 video that would eventually exonerate her.
Two days later, on July 25, the Crash House got a phone call from an airport captain, saying that they were going to be on ABC7 in 20 minutes. The station tuned in for Noyes’s report. It named Duckett as the firefighter who had run over Ye, cryptically attributing the scoop to anonymous “longtime police and fire department sources” who wouldn’t appear on camera. The report did spell out problems with “other firefighters and top brass, which contributed to the tragic accident.” But Duckett was the headliner. The program included footage of her face from The Butch Mystique. It was no consolation to Duckett that she was described as a “sharp, competent veteran of the department.”
“People were angry in the firehouse,” says a firefighter who watched the news at one of the airport houses. “Really angry. One shouted, ‘That girl was dead.’ Everyone was like, ‘When are they going to leave us alone?’ It was, why air anybody’s name in this? That was the outrage.”
After the report ran, the SFFD issued a press release saying that ABC-7 had “distastefully disclosed personnel information” and declining to comment. Fire department spokesperson Mindy Talmadge says that Hayes-White had called Noyes and urged him not to run the story. Talmadge also denies that any of the SFFD’s brass leaked Duckett’s name to Noyes.
But the damage was done. As other news outlets picked up the story, Duckett was devastated. For someone who’d centered her identity on being a top-notch firefighter and a do-gooder, being portrayed as a bungling killer, her name forever searchable on the Internet, was intolerable. She tried to stay out of the scathing online forums calling her incompetent, but sometimes she couldn’t help herself. She had painful encounters at the bagel shop. She got emails accusing her of killing someone’s child. She started weekly counseling sessions. “She knows that [Ye’s family] knows her name,” says Duckett’s wife, Winship. “So then you internalize that there’s an entire country [China] that blames you for something you didn’t do.” In the months that followed, Duckett spiraled into depression and gained 30 pounds. She had visited a school for years as Firefighter Duckett, doling out match-shaped cookies, telling the kids they could do anything they put their mind to, cutting a penny in half with paramedic scissors for effect. The school canceled her visit, saying that they didn’t want her to be subjected to uncomfortable questions from the students.
And always, there was the thought of the girl—a 16-year-old who would never grow up.
On August 1, the department privately cleared Duckett of wrongdoing when Carnes sent her an apologetic email saying, “Let me reiterate something that everybody from me to [Hayes-White] to everyone in our division feels, ‘You didn’t do anything wrong.’ You were doing your job, there was no negligence on your part and there was no way you could have known about the body of the victim.” But Duckett was not cleared by law enforcement until October 18, when the San Mateo DA’s office, which was working with the San Francisco police on the case, exonerated her—after which friends from the station showed up at her house with balloons and confetti for a vindication party. And it wasn’t until December that a preliminary NTSB report found that two rigs had hit Ye and that Duckett’s was the second—at which point the news about the second rig finally hit the press.
Which means that it took more than four months after Duckett’s name was broadcast to the world for the truth to come out: Duckett didn’t hit the girl first. Jimmy Yee did.
As with Watergate, the key question is: What did the fire department brass know, and when did they know it? Noyes’s piece aired a full two weeks after the brass had learned of the existence of the Rescue 10 video showing that Yee, not Duckett, first ran over Ye. Duckett’s first interrogation took place 11 days after that video came to light. Hayes-White had ample time to view the video. On July 19, after coroner Foucrault announced that Ye was still alive when she was run over, Hayes-White admitted that “one or possibly two” rigs had hit the girl. Foucrault says that he asked Hayes-White for both videos and that the fire chief never questioned whether two rigs had hit Ye.
Odder still is the fact that Jimmy Yee was never investigated. On July 24, the day after her formal interrogation, Duckett says, she spoke with Jimmy Yee and his brother John, the driver of Rescue 9, and told them that she had been interrogated by the SFFD. She warned Jimmy that he might be investigated as well. Jimmy responded that the department had told him he would not be investigated and had nothing to worry about. And in fact, Jimmy Yee was never investigated.
San Francisco asked spokesperson Talmadge why the SFFD let Duckett take the fall in the press when it had video of Yee running over Ye.
Talmadge replied, “The fire department never released her name. That’s a very important piece of this picture. Secondly, we were not at liberty to discuss anything about the incident, and therefore we were not going to put someone else’s name out there too. We didn’t give her name out, and we were not going to give anybody else’s name out.”
“Why was Duckett investigated and Yee not?” San Francisco asked.
“As the litigation goes on, that will be revealed,” Talmadge replied. “It’s not something that I can discuss at this point. You will have the answer at some point. There is a reason. A legitimate reason.”
“A reason for why Yee was never investigated?”
“Yes,” Talmadge replied. “And why [Duckett] was, and it has nothing to do with what’s being claimed [in the lawsuit].”
“Was it because Duckett was thought to be lying?”
“Anything would be a possibility, but you’re asking something I can’t technically talk about right now.”
“Why don’t you answer if there’s a legitimate reason to take the wind out of Duckett’s lawsuit’s sails?”
“Conversations have already occurred, and people may know why they were and weren’t investigated and have opted to go this route.”
A plausible explanation for the department’s behavior goes something like this. Believing that Duckett had lied about running over Ye, and under pressure to restore the department’s reputation, the brass launched an aggressive internal investigation of her. But they soon realized (if they didn’t already know) that Yee was the first driver to run over Ye. At that point, the brass decided not to investigate Yee, probably because they had come to realize that neither Yee nor Duckett was to blame, and also because they realized that such an investigation would do the department no good.
Duckett’s attorney Eduardo Roy argues that defending Duckett would have required drawing attention to the department’s shortcomings: to the firefighters who left Ye on the field, to a driver who saw the girl while she wasn’t covered in foam, to a supervisor who was absent for 15 minutes, to the poor radio communications. Roy argues that the brass were hoping that neither video would ever see the light of day. “If you focus on Elyse, you can say it was a complete accident: There was foam, no spotter,” he says. “You don’t have to look at the failures of the command. But the first truck ran over her because the body wasn’t tagged and because officers didn’t follow proper procedures.”
The mishandled investigation was not the department’s only questionable move in the media glare surrounding the rollover of Ye. After Mark Johnson’s helmet-cam pictures ended up in the San Francisco Chronicle, Hayes-White abruptly banned the cameras. She cited patient confidentiality for potential victims, but to many observers it looked like a heavy-handed attempt to prevent future damaging information from coming out. The brass also put a reprimand in Johnson’s personnel file for unauthorized use of a recording device. Hayes-White later revoked her reprimand, but the ban on cameras remains.
San Francisco Fire Fighters Local 798 president Tom O’Connor says, “What I see with this is really sloppy public relations and a really sloppy investigative process. I see people reacting to bad news in the media, and reacting poorly. They should come out and say, ‘This is what happened, we’re investigating it, apologies to the family,’ and then have a thorough investigation.”
Instead, with the story coming out in dribs and drabs over a full year, critical aspects of the case, such as Asiana’s liability and alleged pilot error, have been forgotten, and the firefighters remain the center of conversation.
“Thrown under the bus” may seem too tasteless a metaphor to describe what happened to Duckett—yet that is exactly the expression used by a number of firefighters in response to Duckett’s treatment by the department. Women firefighters now saw writ large in the media what they’d always experienced in the firehouse—a female fall guy taking the blame for everything that goes wrong at fire scenes. “It was the knee-jerk reaction thing,” says one female former firefighter. “Like, gee, funny, you didn’t hear about the other guy. It was immediately like, oh, Elyse. The woman. The black woman. It was just like, of course.” Some women firefighters fear that the misinformation about Duckett will be used as “more proof that we shouldn’t be in that job, that we’re just a bunch of fuckups.”
Some of the rank and file quietly told Duckett that she was being done wrong. “I think they all realize it could have been them [who ran over Ye],” Winship says. “The environment is kind of one for all.”
With increased trainings that feel like “punishment” and lingering unhappiness with how the crash fallout has been handled by the brass, morale in the Crash House is terrible, says one firefighter. “People are talking about retiring early or [transferring] back to the city. People want out.” A few of the Asiana responders have been paying for their own therapy out of pocket. A stress unit counselor who went to the station this spring was hailed with sarcastic gibes. “Thanks for letting us vent,” one firefighter called out. “Everyone feels betrayed by the department,” says another airport firefighter. “That the department was the one that messed up at the crash site, and that’s why they’re doing this to Elyse.”
Duckett filed suit against the fire department in May, claiming retaliation and that the department itself leaked her phone number and address to the press in violation of her firefighter’s rights. The complaint claims that Duckett was a “sacrificial lamb” who was chosen as part of the department’s attempt “to shift blame and scapegoat an individual firefighter to minimize and downplay broader failures within the SFFD.” The suit seeks monetary damages, but Duckett’s attorneys say that what she really wants is a written apology from Hayes-White and to find out who released her name. Her attorneys plan to add a defamation charge in the future. After she filed the lawsuit, Duckett received a number of emails, cards, and phone calls of support from firefighters, including retired men.
Meanwhile, at the NTSB hearing in Washington, D.C., in mid-December, the fire department suddenly changed its story about how Ye Meng Yuan had been killed. Five months after Hayes-White had apologized alongside the San Mateo coroner for SFFD personnel having run over the girl, the department adamantly claimed that Ye was already dead when the rigs hit her. According to Carnes and airport officials, the fact that the two girls sitting near Ye were catapulted from the plane meant that she was ejected too. (Another passenger told the NTSB that Ye wasn’t wearing her seat belt.) Since both of those girls died, the city claimed that Ye died as a result of ejection injuries as well.
Some firefighters echo the city’s version, saying that Ye was obviously thrown from the plane and was either dead or dying. Others say that Ye was obviously removed from the plane, citing her proximity to the evacuation slide and arguing that people hurled from a crashing plane don’t wind up curled in a fetal position. “I think that’s going to be the question that never gets answered: how she got there,” says coroner Foucrault.
Informed observers expected the SFFD’s new version of Ye’s death as legal positioning for the gross negligence lawsuit filed by Ye’s parents, and most expect that suit to be settled. The SFFD is also working to improve emergency protocols, to avoid “secondary strikes” of victims on an airfield.
The firefighters at the airport still don’t know the final verdict on their performance. They feel that they acquitted themselves honorably and well on the day of the crash, only to be second-guessed in the news. Some will walk out of the room when news about the crash comes on the firehouse TV. “They feel like the bastard stepchild,” says union president O’Connor. “The part that is most troubling to me is that it was such a great story, yet you never hear about a fully loaded plane crashing and only three people dying. It was a herculean effort on [the firefighters’] parts.”
For its part, the union has decided to privately celebrate the responders’ courage. Firefighters created the Perez-Valerio Firefighter of the Year Award in 2011, after Vinnie Perez and Tony Valerio were killed in a fire in Diamond Heights. That year, the award also went to Bill Mulkeen, a firefighter who crawled across a ladder straddling two buildings to save an elderly couple from flames. This year, at the June 12 union meeting, it will go to the Asiana responders. “This is just our private moment, no cameras, no fanfare,” O’Connor says. The plaques for the three airport firehouses are engraved with 23 of the Asiana responders’ names—Duckett’s and Yee’s included.
Firefighters, like soldiers and other people whose job it is to put their life on the line for others, are uncomfortable with being called heroes. They’ll say they were just doing their job, except for the few they call “glory grabbers.” Days after the crash, Chief Hayes-White held a press conference at which she introduced two airport fire lieutenants. She called them “true heroes, people who actually went onto the plane to assist passengers off in a very chaotic circumstance.” Rather than seeming to relish the title, the two officers looked somewhat abashed, staring into the middle distance as they recounted their experiences in wavering voices. “The lieutenants went along with it because when the fire department pressures you to do it, you go along with what the chiefs want you to do,” says an airport firefighter. “The department may want to push the hero thing,” says another firefighter. “The rank and file doesn’t.”
Duckett continues to work at the Crash House. She missed this year’s visit to the school as Firefighter Duckett, but hopes to go back.
“I call her a hero,” Winship says of her wife. “She hates it.”
Originally published in the July issue of San Francisco