On July 6, 2013, Jiyeon Kim endured what was undoubtedly one of her worst days on the job, when the Asiana-operated Boeing 777 she was crewing went down on landing at San Francisco International Airport, shedding its tail section along the way. It was the plane crash heard ’round the world, thanks to the fast action of social media, which allowed people to see instantaneous updates of the wreckage, the evacuation of passengers and the prompt emergency response as fire crews and other personnel flooded the tarmac at SFO.
Like all flight crew, Jiyeon Kim had undergone extensive training for just such an event. According to accounts from passengers on board the plane who were successfully evacuated, she played a key role in getting people to safety even in the chaos of heavy smoke, trauma and confusion. At times, she used a fireman’s carry to lift passengers who weren’t able to evacuate independently. She focused on keeping passengers calm even in her own distress, knowing that the first few moments after the crash were critical.
Many are hailing Jiyeon Kim as a heroine, but like firefighters, police officers and other first responders, she was just doing her job.
Flight crews have a long history of sexist stigma; there was a time when they were primarily women, and they were primarily chosen on the basis of looks. “Coffee, tea, or me?” went the joke, and the implication was that women working on flight crews were there to provide any services passengers might require. Today, that sexism still endures in a heavily female-dominated industry that’s often looked down upon, with many flight attendants being harassed because people assume their profession makes that acceptable.
Kim deals with a double stigma as an Asian woman; in the United States in particular, fetishistic attitudes about Asian women endure. It’s entirely possible that Kim has faced sexual harassment from passengers as part of work, and that she will again if she continues to work. Many of those passengers may be operating under the mistaken impression that an Asian woman in a flight attendant’s uniform is fair game because she’s there to serve, but what many passengers seem to forget is that handing out food, drinks, blankets and headphones isn’t actually the primary function of flight crews worldwide.
Their primary job is actually the safety and wellbeing of passengers. Kim, like other flight attendants, was required to complete training in how to deal with emergencies which included simulated emergency conditions like those she endured on Saturday morning in San Francisco, and she was prepared to handle a passenger evacuation. She, like many other airline professionals, undoubtedly hoped that moment would never come, and that she’d be able to retire without ever having to draw upon her knowledge; that the most she’d have to do is help keep passengers comfortable, deal with the occasional case of air sickness, and work with a variety of flight crews all over the world to make flights run smoothly.
But she was ready, and on Saturday, she was forced to rise to the occasion after six years with the company. Jiyeon Kim worked tirelessly to get her entire passenger manifest to safety and to help the rest of her crew — she, along with four other flight attendants, was among the last of the people off the plane. Their efforts play a significant role in the low mortality rate of this crash, which could have been horrific without the work of the cabin crew and first responders who moved so quickly to get everyone to safety.
Unlike one of her crewmates, she was uninjured in the crash; the story of her colleague Lee-yoon Hye is rather remarkable:
“Another attendant, cabin manager Lee Yoon-hye, was the last person to leave the plane, reports the Associated Press. ‘I wasn’t really thinking, but my body started carrying out the steps needed for an evacuation,’ Lee told the AP. ‘I was only thinking about rescuing the next passenger.’
“San Francisco fire chief Joanne Hayes-White told the AP that Lee ‘was so composed I thought she had come from the terminal. She wanted to make sure that everyone was off. … She was a hero.’ Lee, who has 20 years of experience flying with Asiana, managed to rescue passengers in spite of a broken tailbone. At the time, Lee wasn’t aware of the seriousness of her injury.”
In 2010, Jiyeon Kim received a service award from Asiana. Something makes me suspect she’s in line for another one thanks to her heroic efforts in the line of duty on Saturday, but she also serves as an important reminder to all us frequent fliers: pay attention to that safety warning, and try not to be a jerk to your flight attendant.
Photo credit: Steve Rhodes