The first ambulance reached San Francisco International Airport at 11:34 a.m., six minutes after Asiana Airlines Flight 214 slammed its tail into the seawall short of the runway and spun across the tarmac.
It was an eternity for those who fled the burning Boeing 777. They used their mobile phones to call emergency 911 operators, pleading for medical help for victims they described as near death or critically injured.
“There are no ambulances here,” one woman tells a dispatcher in recordings released by the California Highway Patrol. “We’ve been on the ground, I don’t know, 20 minutes, a half hour. There are people laying on the tarmac with critical injuries -- head injuries. We’re almost losing one here. We’re trying to keep her alive.”
Only two of the 307 people on board the wide-body jet didn’t survive the crash landing on the edge of San Francisco Bay about 11:28 a.m. local time, July 6. More than 200 were taken to hospitals. The 911 records offer a window into the scene as investigators seek to understand why so many survived.
“We just got in a plane crash and there a bunch of people who still need help and there’s not enough medics here,” says another female passenger. She tells the operator she’s standing near debris at the end of the runway where the plane hit.
“There is a woman out here on the street -- on the runway -- who is pretty much burned very severely on the head and we don’t know what to do,” she says. “She is severely burned. She will probably die soon if we don’t get help.”
Mindy Talmadge, a San Francisco Fire Department spokeswoman, said its airport units rolled at 11:28 a.m. Twenty-three firefighters, including four trained as paramedics, began prioritizing victims based on the severity of their conditions, she said in an interview. The unit doesn’t have ambulances, she said.
The firefighters’ initial focus was to remove passengers from the plane and suppress the flames, she said. In plane crashes, the department’s ambulances are used to transport, not treat, patients, she said.
The fire department ambulances were held in a staging area near the runway as a precaution against potential risks, including an explosion or a terrorist device, she said.
“There may have been some people that waited a long time to be transported to the hospital, but those were the patients that were prioritized as being delayed transports and in need of less medical attention than the ones who were transported before,” Talmadge said.
A small number of private ambulances were close to the scene at the time of the crash and responded immediately, she said. At least 13 hospitals received passengers from the crash.
At the city’s only trauma center, San Francisco General Hospital, 11 miles (18 kilometers) from the airport, the first wave of victims arrived at 12:30 p.m., or about an hour after the crash, according to Rachael Kagan, a spokeswoman.
In California, all mobile phone calls to 911 are routed to highway patrol communications centers. Dispatchers heard not only from victims, but people who saw the crash and smoke.
“We just heard a giant explosion and I’m with a couple of other hikers and they saw that an airplane had crashed right there at SFO,” says a man who gives his location as near Pacifica, a coastal town about 6 miles west of the airport.
His call is transferred to police, whose dispatcher tells him they’re aware of the crash.
“We just don’t see any sirens or anything,” he says.
“We are responding,” the operator replies. “Trust me.”
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