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First responders describe eerie, chaotic moments after Asiana crash

By Michael Pearson, CNN
July 8, 2013 -- Updated 2038 GMT (0438 HKT)
In this handout photo released by the National Transportation Safety Board, Asiana Airlines Flight 214 sits just off the runway at San Francisco International Airport on Sunday, July 7. The Boeing 777 coming from Seoul, South Korea, crashed on landing on Saturday, July 6. Three passengers, all girls, died as a result of the first notable U.S. air crash in four years. In this handout photo released by the National Transportation Safety Board, Asiana Airlines Flight 214 sits just off the runway at San Francisco International Airport on Sunday, July 7. The Boeing 777 coming from Seoul, South Korea, crashed on landing on Saturday, July 6. Three passengers, all girls, died as a result of the first notable U.S. air crash in four years.
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Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
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Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
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Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • "All you could see ... was dark smoke," firefighter recounts
  • Firefighters laud police officer for charging into plane without protective gear
  • Plane popped and crackled but was strangely quiet during rescue operation, police officer says
  • Asiana Flight 214 crashed Saturday on landing at San Francisco International Airport

(CNN) -- Fire Lt. Dave Monteverdi had just finished another call at San Francisco International Airport when the call came crackling over his radio.

"Alert 3. Plane crash."

Still in his turnout gear, Monteverdi looked out the terminal window, and what he saw gave him a start.

"All you could see across the airfield was dark smoke rising into the sky," he said.

It was just moments after Asiana Airlines Flight 214 had clipped the seawall on the bayside airport's runway, tumbling to a violent stop Saturday. Monteverdi was among a small army of fire and police responders who would race to what many referred to in a Monday news conference as a surreal scene they had never expected to see.

Among them was police Officer Jim Cunningham, who was on a routine welfare check at an aircraft terminal when he heard the call. He raced outside to see the tower of smoke rising, hailed a nearby ambulance and told its driver to follow him.

First responder: 'We had no time'
Asiana 214's fateful last seconds
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And at the fire department's airport station, sardonically nicknamed the "Crash House," Lt. Chrissy Emmons' adrenaline began to flow as soon as she heard the tower dispatcher's call.

"I knew from her voice that the event we were going to was real," he said.

She and her driver hopped into the cab of Rescue 88 and began racing toward the scene.

As they approached the crash site, they saw a large column of smoke, fire coming from one of the stricken plane's engines and jet fuel streaming from the wing.

Passengers were milling around outside the airplane, some of them even heading back to retrieve luggage.

As Cunningham and fellow officers worked to herd passengers away from the burning, leaking plane, Monteverdi dashed up the escape chute to search for stragglers.

Emmons wasn't far behind.

"I said, 'If he can do it, I can do it'," she said. Another firefighter followed.

While Monteverdi headed for the cockpit, Emmons and another firefighter probed the inside of the dark, smoky and eerily quiet interior of the broken Boeing 777, looking for passengers to rescue, knocking down flames as they went.

As they approached the rear of the plane, they found wounded passengers, some of them stuck.

About this same time, Cunningham clawed his way up into the airplane through the broken tail section to help firefighters, drawing praise from rescue workers for braving the danger with no protective gear.

Cunningham's boss, Gaetano Caltagirone, followed Cunningham aboard the airplane to see him tossing seats and luggage to make room to help passengers get off the plane.

"So much chaos going on, and it was quiet," he said. "Everybody was doing what they were trained to do, save lives."

The amazing memories may end up being marred by one incident. Assistant Fire Chief Dale Carnes said it's possible that one of the fire department's vehicles that responded to the crash may have "contacted" one of the teenage girls who died in the crash.

Authorities found the two girls on the tarmac, but it's not clear if the they died in the crash, or later, or even if a fire vehicle hit one of them.

"At this time because we have not clearly defined and established those facts, we cannot answer your questions," Carnes said Monday. The incident is under investigation, he said.

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Asiana Flight 214 crash
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