SAN FRANCISCO — The firefighter who ran over and killed a survivor of a commercial air disaster in San Francisco was unaware of the girl’s death at the time and will not be charged with any crimes, a prosecutor announced Friday.
San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said firefighter Elyse Duckett was responding to the burning Boeing 777 when the truck she was driving rolled over Ye Mengyuan. Investigators believe Ye was laying prone on the tarmac and covered in firefighting foam.
“This was a dramatically chaotic situation,” Wagstaffe said of absolving Duckett of any criminal responsibility. “It was not a tough conclusion to reach.”
Wagstaffe said he arrived at his decision after reviewing police, fire and other first responder reports, the coroner’s investigation and numerous videos of events at the scene. Ye, 16, was a Chinese student visiting the United States with classmates.
Wagstaffe said some of the videos show the girl on the ground outside the plane before the area is covered in foam. Other videos have shown Duckett’s rig later driving over the same area after it was covered in firefighting foam.
San Francisco Fire Department Chief Joanne Hayes-White declined to discuss Ye’s death other than to call it a “tragic accident.”
Hayes-White said firefighters likely saved the lives of many critically wounded passengers scattered about the tarmac and still trapped aboard the Asiana Airlines flight that crashed landed July 6.
“If not for the professional rescue, triage, treatment and transport operations that were conducted by all involved agencies, it is likely that there would have been a greater loss of life,” Hayes-White said.
In all, 304 of the 307 people aboard the plane survived the July 6 crash.
Ye and a friend were seated at the back of the plane that came in too low and too slow, clipping its landing gear and tail on a rocky seawall just short of the runway.
It was unclear how Ye got from the airplane to the spot where she died. Investigators believe she was down on the ground and not standing during the aftermath of the plane crash.
Anthony Tarricone, an attorney for Ye’s family, said he was not surprised criminal charges were not filed.
“It’s really not the subject of criminal prosecution,” he said. “It’s properly the subject of civil action, which we intend to prosecute.” He said he had not been in touch with Ye’s family about the District Attorney’s Office’s decision.
The cause of the crash is under investigation. The National Transportation Safety Board has said it did not find any mechanical problems with the plane during a preliminary review.
But the plane’s pilots, as well as the airline, have raised the possibility that a key device that controls the Boeing 777’s speed may have malfunctioned.
Ye and her close friend, 16-year-old Wang Linjia, who also died, were students at Jiangshan Middle School in Zhejiang, an affluent coastal province in eastern China, Chinese state media has reported. They were part of a group of students and teachers from the school who were heading to summer camp in Southern California.
The other victim, 15-year-old Liu Yipeng, later died at a hospital.