No criminal charges in Asiana crash death: DA

Updated: 2013-10-21 04:10

By Chang Jun in San Francisco (China Daily USA)

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San Mateo County District Attorney Stephan Wagstaffe's announcement Friday that no criminal charges would be filed against the firefighter who accidentally ran over and killed a Chinese survivor of the July 6 Asiana Flight 214 crash in San Francisco has caused mixed feelings and heated debate in the local community. Attornies for the victim's family say they will pursue civil claims.

After reviewing "numerous videos" and reports from the coroner's office, police officers, firefighters and other first responders to the incident scene, Wagstaffe said in a statement that his office determined there was "no criminal culpability for any individual involved in the response to the airline crash".

The death of Ye Mengyuan, a 16-year-old from China's Zhejiang province who was on a student study tour, was a "tragic accident that did not involve any violation of our criminal laws", Wagstaffe said.

On July 19, San Mateo County Coroner Robert Foucrault announced that Ye died of "multiple blunt injuries" consistent with being run over by a motor vehicle. At the moment of the incident, police said she was on the ground and covered in fire-retardant foam that rescuers had sprayed on the Boeing 777 jetliner wreckage.

The driver of the fire truck, Elyse Ducket, 49, could not have seen Ye, the prosecutor said in the statement.

In retrospect, Wagstaffe said "the remarkable efforts of the San Francisco firefighters and police officers in responding to this very chaotic scene and in attempting to save hundreds of lives while exposing themselves to potentially life-threatening circumstances were considered in our review", adding "our conclusion remains that it does not involve criminal liability in any manner".

In response, attorneys from the Kreindler & Kreindler, which has been retained by Ye's family, said they are not surprised at the DA's decision. "It was a tragic accident, though completely avoidable," the law firm said in a statement. "Multiple Fire Department personnel knew that Ms. Ye was on the ground outside the aircraft. They abandoned her, leaving her in harm's way, where she was then covered with foam and run over by the truck. Her death was caused by fundamentally inexplicable failures on the part of responders whose job it was to protect her",

"On behalf of the Ye family, we intend to pursue civil claims against those responsible for Ye Mengyuan's death," said Anthony Tarricone, a partner at Kreindler.

A local community leader who has been devoted to promoting US-China teen exchanges and asked to remain anonymous called the decision hard to accept. "I'm not sure where we should draw the fine line between criminal and civil liabilities," she said.

Charles Herrmann, a former prosecutor and now CEO and chief litigator in the aviation law department of Herrmann Scholbe in Seattle, said, "I see no criminal activity on the part of the firefighter driving the emergency vehicle. Second only to her family, the driver is probably the next most heartbroken person. Unlike some other countries, the United States generally does not allow incarceration of people for unintended mistakes."

Thomas Chan, partner at Fox Rothschild in Los Angeles, also agreed with the District Attorney's decision. On the surface, it sounds like a travesty of justice, he said. However, "if the firefighter could not see the victim who was covered by foam, the killing lacks criminal intent," he explained.

San Francisco Fire Department Chief Joanne Hayes-White declined to discuss Ye's death, but said in a prepared statement that her team had saved the lives of many critically wounded passengers that day.

Back in July, Hayes-White called Ye's death a "tragic accident" and apologized to her family. "Obviously this is very difficult news for us. We're heartbroken. We're in the business of saving lives," she said. "There's not a lot of words to describe how badly we feel about it."

This is a tragedy that cannot be undone or emotionally or financially compensated for properly, according to attorney Howard Chen, partner at K&L Gates.

Both Herrmann and Chan believe the civil liability is a different question. "The firefighter might be civilly liable for negligence and have to compensate the victim's family," said Chan.

"While a prison sentence may not be appropriate, the law will hold people financially accountable for their negligent mistakes," said Herrmann. "The driver and her agency must bear their share of responsibility for Ye's death along with the airlines, air traffic controllers, and the airplane manufacturers, as the investigation may reveal that they were the causes of the accident in the first place."

Putting aside the differences, some people believe the important thing is to focus on the future, given the fact that the number of travelers between the US and China is increasing year to year. "It is important that we learn whatever lessons we can from accidents such as this to avoid such tragedies in the future," said Herrmann.

A total of 304 of the 307 passengers aboard the flight survived the crash. Ye and two of her classmates were killed. The high school student group was on its way to West Valley Christian Church and School in Los Angeles for a three-week summer camp.

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