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Lesbian firefighter settles plane crash suit against SF

by Seth Hemmelgarn

Elyse Duckett. Photo: Courtesy ABC7
Elyse Duckett. Photo: Courtesy ABC7  

A San Francisco lesbian firefighter has settled her lawsuit against the city involving her role in the aftermath of the 2013 Asiana Airlines plane crash at San Francisco International Airport that left three people dead.

In her lawsuit, Elyse Duckett claimed that fire department officials made her "the sacrificial lamb" after a teenage passenger was run over by two fire trucks and died.

Duckett said that Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White and others were retaliating against her after she'd filed complaints against the department about "disparate treatment and harassment."

In February, the Board of Supervisors approved a $250,000 settlement in the case. Attorneys in the case agreed to settle the suit in November 2017.

Duckett, who's black and had been with the department since 1989, "helped pioneer desegregation efforts in the SFFD," her lawsuit, filed in May 2014, said.

Despite having video that Ye Meng Yuan, 16, had been covered in foam and run over by another vehicle, the fire department had tried to blame Duckett alone for Yuan's death, Duckett claimed.

Fire officials leaked allegations to the media that Duckett was solely responsible for Yuan's death, Duckett said.

When she joined the agency almost 30 years ago, Duckett was a member of the first class under a court-ordered consent decree to integrate it with women and minorities, and she led efforts to recruit other women.

But even after the fire department got an African-American chief, discrimination in the agency didn't end, and after that chief left, Duckett had to file several Equal Employment Opportunity complaints because of "disparate treatment and harassment by officers at the airport," where she'd been stationed since about 1994.

"Elyse has continued to express her critical assessment of the SFFD's administration with respect to discrimination and harassment, and their continued marginalization and patronizing of women at SFO," according to Duckett's lawsuit, which says she'd filed complaints about "disparate treatment and harassment for firefighters at the airport based on gender, race and orientation."

"Elyse's willingness to speak up regarding both the workplace environment and issues of public safety has made her a target within the SFFD," her complaint says. "The SFFD's efforts to place sole blame on her for [Yuan's death] were designed to kill two birds with one stone - attempting to silence Elyse while trying to protect their own reputations by covering up the larger failures in training and leadership that led to the chaos of the Asiana 214 response, dangers that pose a continuing threat to the people of San Francisco."

In her complaint, Duckett acknowledged that she'd run over Yuan, but she said the girl was "covered in foam" and not visible, and another truck had already run over her twice.

Among other problems, the on-duty fire captain wasn't at the airport when the plane crashed, and when he got there, "he did not assume command. As a result, there was no clear command structure in the critical first minutes after the crash, leading to a complete breakdown in communications and coordination of response efforts," Duckett claimed.

Things were so bad that "more than once," one fire official "had to physically open the door of a responding unit in order to communicate with the driver," the lawsuit said. "This stone-age method of verbal communication is not the proper way to coordinate an emergency response."

"The lack of proper radio communication" resulted in other problems, too. When initial responders saw Yuan on the ground, they couldn't communicate that effectively to others. Even when two firefighters identified her body after she'd been run over, it took about nine minutes to communicate the information to command, Duckett's lawsuit said.

A San Francisco police sergeant investigating the crash's aftermath determined from video taken from fire trucks that one of them had been the first to run over Yuan, "twice running her over after covering her in foam." Duckett had not been driving that truck.

Despite the video footage, about two weeks after the crash, Mark Gonzales, the fire department's deputy operations chief, told Duckett officials "had definitive video evidence that she had run over and killed [Yuan]."

Gonzales told her, "We have video. Do you want to see it? I can describe it to you. Do you want me to describe it to you?" according to Duckett's complaint, which said, "Gonzales insisted on Elyse Duckett's guilt and questioned her in an aggressive, accusatory, and hostile manner."

Duckett told Gonzales and others that video showed a different vehicle had first run over Yuan, they continued insisting that Duckett was responsible.

In her complaint, Duckett also said that at least one person at the fire department disclosed her "identity, contact information, and involvement" in the response to the plane crash to KGO ABC7, and the TV station broadcast a report identifying Duckett as the driver of the truck that killed Yuan. Reporter Dan Noyes cited fire department officials who didn't want to be named as the sources for the story.

"After the improper interrogations and violations of her procedural rights, [Duckett] suffered severe anxiety and emotional distress," and she was "repeatedly harassed by the media" and missed work, among other problems, she claimed.

Spokespeople for the fire department, which isn't listed individually in the complaint as a defendant, didn't respond to an emailed request for comment about what changes in communications, triage, and training the agency has made since the crash.

Eduardo Roy, Duckett's attorney, said that she was on vacation and not available for comment.

In a statement, John Cote, a spokesman for the city attorney's office, said, "While the city has sound arguments and defenses in this matter, we believe this is a reasonable and prudent settlement given the facts, the legal claims and the inherent costs and uncertainty of litigation."

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