Cops Returned to Crashed Plane Until Fire Drove Them Out
Anyone who boards a commercial airliner might wonder at some point: What would happen in a crash? Is my seat in a good part of the plane? Would that man next to me panic? Is this dirty seat fabric really fireproof?
Gaetano Caltagirone and James Cunningham can tell you. They can tell you more than they knew just a week ago and far more than they ever wanted to know. They can tell you what it’s like when you expect to hear screaming and only hear moans.
Lieutenant Caltagirone and Officer Cunningham were the only San Francisco police to enter the cabin of Asiana Flight 214 (020560) after it tore apart in a crash landing July 6, killing two of its 307 passengers and crew. They saw how passengers reacted -- some bravely, some bizarrely -- and they saw how a modern jetliner behaves in a catastrophe.
“I never thought in my career that working at the airport we would have to experience this,” Caltagirone said in an interview.
Even as investigators seek the cause of the crash, stories are emerging of heroic actions by passengers, crew members and emergency responders that helped save many lives.
Caltagirone, 46, has been a cop for more than 18 years; Cunningham, 53, more than 27 years. Their usual job is routine airport crime and security. While plane crashes are always a possibility, that’s not their focus. There’s a fire department on the premises for that.
The two officers have worked together at the airport for almost two years and become friends. They work the same hours and the same days. On July 6, their shift at San Francisco International started around 6 a.m. local time.
Shortly before 11:30 a.m., San Francisco Police Officer Jeff Brown called a Code 33 over their radios. That meant clear the airwaves. Brown then said a plane had gone down. A Boeing 777 from Seoul had crash-landed on Runway 28 Left. Caltagirone was in his fifth-floor office. From the window, he saw dark smoke down the field.
Cunningham was on the ground level, making his way to his patrol car, when the call came in. As he reached the plane, Cunningham could see passengers sliding down emergency chutes, assisted by the flight crew. Some were carrying bags, phones, iPads or purses; others were trying to return to the plane to retrieve luggage. He tried to urge them away from aircraft.
“People had stayed on the ground close to the plane,” Cunningham said. “I guess a lot of people felt that when they got off the plane, it was safe.”
Caltagirone drove a sport-utility vehicle with a handful of other officers to the crash site. He saw Cunningham and Officer Derrick Lee throwing their knives to the pilots inside the plane who were trying to cut the seatbelts trapping some passengers.
Cunningham, without protective gear, entered the fuselage through a door close enough to the ground for him to reach. He was struck by the lack of screaming. Moans, but a lack of visible blood, suggested that some passengers had severe internal injuries.
The inside of the cabin was gray from smoke. Some seats, designed to withstand many times the force of gravity, had been uprooted and tossed around. Overhead luggage racks had collapsed, sending bags into the aisles, where they blocked the way. The floor was impossible to see because it was covered with debris, side paneling and metal.
Cunningham could see people trapped between seats at the back of the plane and helped a firefighter cut them out.
Caltagirone entered the plane through the same opening as Cunningham and joined in freeing passengers from their seats and clearing the aisles for rescue efforts.
That’s when Caltagirone saw the fire. Firefighters were trying to keep it at bay, but it was growing.
One passenger was still on the plane. An elderly man, he was trapped under debris and couldn’t move, Cunningham said. The smoke thickened as Cunningham, Caltagirone and the firefighters struggled to breathe as they carried the man out on a stretcher.
They could hear the sound of crackling flames intensify. They knew the fire was getting worse. Then Cunningham saw fuel pouring out of a wing of the plane.
“It was just like someone had a fire hose upside down and was just letting it loose, spraying around,” Cunningham said.
He yelled to firefighters, who ordered everyone remaining to get out.
“They didn’t want to leave,” Cunningham said of the flight crew. “They wanted to make sure everyone was gone. One of the last people coming down was one of the pilots. He didn’t slide down. He ran.”
Word came that some people might be unaccounted for. While Cunningham said he believed the cabin was empty, he went back in to check. Caltagirone followed. The two did one more assessment, then turned to each other.
“It’s clear,” Cunningham said.
They could tell the fire was picking up its pace. They heard what sounded like glass breaking inside; outside, the shell of the plane was burning. They ran, the last to leave the aircraft.
About 20 feet from the back of the plane, a brother and sister, both around the age of 10, stood frozen in shock. The girl was missing a shoe and the boy didn’t have shoes or socks. They told Caltagirone they couldn’t find their parents and that the girl’s leg hurt. The lieutenant put her on his back and helped the boy walk toward the emergency vehicles.
Cunningham was told by other rescuers to breathe oxygen. He lay down. The phone rang; it was his wife, panicked after learning of the crash. “I’m fine,” he said he told her. “Don’t worry. I’m just doing the same thing I would want someone to do for my family.”
Airport buses took passengers away. The police officers, firefighters, airport officials and other first responders sat on the asphalt. It was sometime after 6 p.m., Cunningham and Caltagirone’s first chance to sit down. The Red Cross had arrived with sandwiches and Gatorade, and emergency workers talked about what they had seen.
“It was an amazing feat of teamwork, a group effort,” Caltagirone said. “And they all have the guts and the glory to come back to work the next day and be ready to take on any kind of incident.”
At home, Cunningham spoke to his wife, Roberta, for a few minutes about the crash. He told her he didn’t want to say much. He and his 18-month-old daughter watched the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse.
“I walked back to her bedroom and put her in the rocking chair, and I remember smelling her hair because she had just taken a nice bath,” Cunningham said. “She smelled nice and fresh, and I just relaxed.”
He fell asleep holding her.
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