SAN FRANCISCO, Cal. -- One of the first police officers on the scene of the Asiana Airlines jetliner crash was among those hailed Monday for how they plunged into the smoky cabin to rescue passengers.
Officer James Cunningham described an eerie quiet as he explored the wreckage without breathing equipment Saturday to aid "overwhelmed" firefighters in freeing victims trapped by collapsed overhead bins and other debris.
Cunningham was one of several rescuers from San Francisco's police and fire departments who described the carnage at a news conference. However, their efforts were overshadowed by questions about whether one of the arriving fire engines may have run over and killed one of the two victims, both 16-year-old girls who were part of a school group from China. San Francisco Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White called it a "possibility" that is under investigation.
San Mateo County Coroner Robert Foucrault said autopsies on both victims of the crash were completed Sunday night but he will withhold the results for several weeks because "it's a high-profile case" and he wants the probe to be thorough.
Rescuers described the chaos of the scene, with passengers cascading down evacuation slides and members of the flight crew asking for knives to help free passengers. Most of the 307 aboard slid down the chutes, but in the rear of the cabin there were elderly passengers unable to get out or those who were trapped. The Boeing 777's tail had broken off when it struck and cartwheeled down the runway.
Cunningham, who had led a passing ambulance crew to the scene, says he entered the plane through its open rear section and saw that firefighters were "totally overwhelmed" in trying to rescue passengers who remained.
At first, he tried to clear luggage and wreckage blocking exits. Then he saw the trapped passengers. There was no screaming, only moans. Some were "just scared to move" and he "ran back and forth getting backboards for people who could not move" on their own. He even took a few moments to pick up smartphones left behind by passengers, thinking loved ones would be trying to reach them.
As he helped extricate the last dazed passengers, he was hit by a wall of black smoke. "I thought I was a tough guy (who could) hold my breath," he says.
Later, he had to shoo away some passengers who were trying to retrieve luggage or were too close to the plane gushing fuel in a field of dry grass that could ignite and engulf them.
Fire crews say they made repeated searches of the plane after an Asiana crewmember reported that four flight attendants were missing. They used the quickest way aboard the airline - climbing up the deployed emergency chutes that passengers had used to get out of the cabin. While in the plane, they say, they had to extinguish fires and deal with fuel gushing from the plane's punctured tanks.
"I feel lucky and blessed we were able to get those people off in time," says fire Lt. Crissy Emmons.