Police-fire tensions flare following Asiana crash probe
Tensions between police and fire department are documented in over 200 pages of documents compiled in connection with the death of 15-year-old Ye Meng Yuan
By Jaxon Van Derbeken
San Francisco Chronicle
SAN FRANCISCO — San Francisco police investigating the death of an Asiana Airlines crash survivor who was run over and killed by Fire Department rigs concluded that one of the firefighter drivers was lying to them and challenged a high-ranking fire official who didn't inform them about key camera footage of the incident, according to Police Department documents.
Tensions between police and the Fire Department are evident in more than 200 pages of investigative documents compiled in connection with the death of 15-year-old Ye Meng Yuan, the Chinese girl who was run over by two fire rigs in the minutes after the July 6 crash at San Francisco International Airport. The Chronicle obtained some of the documents from police under a state Public Records Act request and others from sources close to the investigation.
The Police Department ultimately submitted the case to San Mateo County prosecutors, who have jurisdiction over the airport. The officer in charge of the probe, Sgt. Kevin Edison, wrote in his log that no criminal negligence charges "appear evident" against any firefighter in Ye's death, and county District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe agreed.
There were conflicts with the Fire Department throughout the police investigation, however, starting with the role of firefighter Elyse Duckett. She was at the wheel of the second rig to run over Ye as the girl lay on the ground near the burning airplane's left wing.
Rushing To Scene
Duckett had been away from her airport fire station when the Boeing 777 came down short of the runway, crashed into a seawall and caught fire. She hurried back and drove one of the airport's foam-spraying rigs to the crash scene off the side of a runway, but soon ran out of water and headed off to get more.
Three days after the crash, Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White supplied police with footage from the helmet camera of Battalion Chief Mark Johnson. It showed Duckett driving directly over the spot where Ye's foam-obscured body was found moments later.
To police Officer Wesley Villaruel, a hit-and-run detail investigator who compiled the collision report, the video was clear evidence that Duckett's rig had run over the girl.
Duckett, however, told police July 10 — the day after police investigators viewed the footage — that she couldn't have hit the girl, because she had seen the tarp-covered teenager on the ground. What's more, she said, Johnson had told her Ye was there, so she backed up and drove around the girl.
But Johnson's camera footage showed no such thing. Instead, after speaking with Johnson, Duckett drove in an arc forward and over where Ye was found a short time later.
The footage showed a firefighter placing a tarp on the girl after Duckett's rig had left.
"The video, which also had audio, contradicted Duckett's statement," police Sgt. Justin Erb wrote in a search warrant affidavit seeking news video of the scene.
The assistant deputy fire chief in charge of airport operations, Dale Carnes, was present during the interview and agreed that Duckett had "lied to the police," Erb said in his investigative log. Carnes also told investigators he had informed Hayes-White that Duckett lied.
Villaruel's report concluded that Duckett had been driving in an "improper manner," but that it was a "chaotic situation" and that Ye had been covered by "a significant layer of foam."
For her part, Duckett filed a claim against the city in January, saying she was being wrongly blamed for killing Ye when hers was actually the second rig to run over the girl.
John Hurley, her attorney, said Friday that the city has denied the claim and that Duckett is considering filing a lawsuit.
"Her account at the time was based on her recollection, without having seen any video, of what was a very chaotic event," Hurley said. "After having seen the video that has been released, what is clear is that the city and the Fire Department have misrepresented the facts."
Footage shot by a camera mounted in the first fire rig that ran over Ye was the subject of angry exchanges between police and Carnes, the police investigative documents show.
The camera was aboard a rig driven by firefighter Jimmy Yee, who was at the crash scene before Duckett arrived and before the teenage crash survivor had been covered with foam.
Footage from the rig's dashboard camera showed that another firefighter pointed out the girl to Yee as she lay on the ground and that Yee initially drove around her. A few minutes later, however, he returned to the spot and drove over her, the footage shows.
Police learned of the footage's existence from airport officials on July 11, five days after the crash.
Erb wrote that when he heard about the footage, he promptly headed to the airport maintenance shop. When he arrived, he found airport technicians downloading the footage from rig cameras to a portable hard-drive device — violating investigative guidelines that require police to maintain control of potential evidence from start to finish.
An airport maintenance supervisor said his boss had told him and other workers to download the footage and "keep it to themselves," Erb wrote in his investigative log.
Fire Department official Carnes, who showed up at the scene, told Erb that the footage was being downloaded for the National Transportation Safety Board, which was investigating the cause of the crash but had nothing to do with the criminal probe.
"He told me he believed the (police) investigation was closed," Erb wrote. When advised the probe was still active, Carnes said "he was told otherwise."
Uncomfortable With Tone
Carnes added that he had just had "a three-way conversation with his chief (Hayes-White) and my chief (Police Chief Greg Suhr)," Erb wrote. Carnes denied trying to obstruct the investigation, but asserted that he was "not required to notify the police regarding the videos" and said he was "getting pissed off."
Carnes insisted he had learned about the footage from Yee's rig only the day before and that he had been helping with the police probe as much as he " f- could," Erb wrote.
"I ain't hiding jack s-," Carnes told Erb, the police investigator wrote.
At that point, Carnes ended the interview, saying he was concerned that the investigators were "going to make this official," according to Erb.
A fire battalion chief interviewed by Erb at the airport, Ed Dea, "stated he felt like they were being treated like criminals and they weren't hiding anything," according to the police sergeant's notes.
"Dea advised me that my tone was making people feel uncomfortable" and that he intended to complain to the deputy police chief at the airport "about my questioning," Erb wrote.
Carnes did not return calls seeking comment. He has long insisted that Ye was dead before the first fire rig ran over her, but San Mateo County's coroner concluded otherwise.
Mindy Talmadge, a Fire Department representative speaking for the firefighters involved, said other police investigators had told Carnes that the probe was over. She said Carnes had told airport officials and federal safety board investigators about the existence of the rig's camera footage, and that they had told police.
Carnes, she said, wasn't "trying to hide anything."
The day after the airport confrontation, Suhr announced that the police investigation had found that one rig drove over the girl — Duckett's. It wasn't until later, when the footage from Yee's rig was given to police, that investigators realized that his was the first Fire Department vehicle to strike the teenager.
An analysis by Edison, the police sergeant in charge of the investigation, concluded that Yee actually ran over the girl twice — once when he approached the burning plane to spray foam on it, and again when he backed up. Edison said the rig appeared to roll over her lower body.
When Ye's body was finally found, her head had been crushed, according to the San Mateo County coroner. Duckett's rig is believed to be the one that struck her head.
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