Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014 | 11:19 p.m.
The coroner who concluded a girl died after she was twice run over by rescue trucks racing toward a burning plane disputes a different conclusion from city officials who say she was already dead from the impact of falling out of the crashing jet.
"We did our examination and we determined that the young lady was alive when she was struck by the fire trucks," said San Mateo County coroner Robert Foucrault. "The death certificate says what it says. If someone wants to put a spin on something, they can do that."
No one disputes that Ye Meng Yuan, 16, was found dead on the ground after being thrown out the back of an Asiana Airlines jet airliner that crashed at San Francisco International Airport last summer. And there's agreement she was hit, twice, by fire trucks rushing to the scene.
But a few weeks after the accident, Foucrault announced that the autopsy was complete and that she had been alive when she was hit, saying there was internal hemorrhaging that indicated her heart was still beating when the truck struck her.
Only three of the 307 people aboard the jet died in the dramatic crash that sent the Boeing 777 tumbling across the tarmac with its tail torn off.
The conclusion that she did not survive the initial crash was contained in a report the city filed with the National Transportation Safety Board in January. City officials say they based their findings solely 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 seatbelt for the landing, based on interviews with survivors and an inspection that found her seatbelt attached and unbuckled.
Families of Meng Yuan and the two other victims have filed a claim against the city saying emergency workers were incompetent.
Their attorney Gretchen Nelson 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 of those NTSB 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 some excerpts from the coroner's report but no 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."