SAN FRANCISCO—After nearly 11 hours in the air, the passengers and crew aboard a jumbo jetliner traveling from Seoul to San Francisco were looking forward to a quick and uneventful landing as Asiana Airlines Flight 214 approached the airport from over San Francisco Bay.
What they got instead, without a word of warning, was terror, panic and confusion.
The Boeing 777 slammed into the runway on Saturday morning, breaking off its tail and catching fire before slumping to a stop that allowed the lucky ones to flee down emergency slides into thick smoke and a trail of debris.
Firefighters doused the flames that burned through the fuselage with foam and water, and police officers on the ground threw utility knives up to crew members so they could cut the seat belts of those who remained trapped as rescue crews removed the injured.
By the time the 307 people on the flight were all accounted for several hours later, two people found outside the wreckage had been confirmed dead and 182 others transported to area hospitals.
Chinese state media on Sunday identified the dead as Ye Mengyuan and Wang Linjia, both 16 and students at Jiangshan Middle School in eastern China.
But as harrowing as the crash was, survivors and witnesses were just as stunned to learn that the toll of deaths and serious injuries wasn’t much higher.
“When you heard that explosion, that loud boom and you saw the black smoke … you just thought, my God, everybody in there is gone,” said Ki Siadatan, who lives a few kilometers away from San Francisco International Airport and watched the plane’s “wobbly” and “a little bit out of control” approach from his balcony. “My initial reaction was I don’t see how anyone could have made it.”
Vedpal Singh, who was sitting in the middle of the aircraft and survived the crash with his family, said there was no forewarning from the pilot or any crew members before the plane touched down hard and he heard a loud sound.
“We knew something was horrible wrong,” said Singh, who suffered a fractured collarbone and had his arm was in a sling. “It’s miraculous we survived.”
A visibly shaken Singh said the plane went silent before people tried to get out anyway they could. His 15-year-old son said luggage tumbled from the overhead bins. The entire incident lasted about 10 seconds.
Another passenger, Benjamin Levy, 39, said it looked to him that the plane was flying too low and too close to the bay as it approached the runway.
Levy, who was sitting in an emergency exit row, said he felt the pilot try to lift the jet up before it crashed, and thought the maneuver might have saved some lives.
“Everybody was screaming. I was trying to usher them out,” he recalled of the first seconds after the landing. “I said, ‘Stay calm, stop screaming, help each other out, don’t push.’”
Joanne Hayes-White, chief of the San Francisco Fire Department, said she did not know the ages or genders of the two people who died, but said they were found on “the exterior” of the plane.
“Having surveyed that area, we’re lucky that there hasn’t been a greater loss,” she said.
Airport spokesman Doug Yakel said 49 people were critically injured and 132 had less significant injuries.
The flight originated in Shanghai, China, and stopped over in Seoul, South Korea, before coming to San Francisco, airport officials said.
The airline said there were 16 crew members aboard, and the 291 passengers included 77 South Koreans, 141 Chinese, 61 Americans and one Japanese citizen. The nationalities of the remaining passengers weren’t immediately known.
Robert Foucrault, coroner of San Mateo County, told the San Jose Mercury News that the two dead passengers were 16-year-old females and that one appeared to have been thrown from the rear of the plane when the tail broke off, and the other was found near the wreckage.
The official Chinese news agency Xinhua, quoting the Chinese consulate in San Francisco, said both victims were from China.
At least 70 Chinese students and teachers were on the plane heading to summer camps, according to education authorities in China.
Approach was too low
Based on witness accounts in the news and video of the wreckage, Mike Barr, a former military pilot and accident investigator who teaches aviation safety at the University of Southern California, said it appeared the plane approached the runway too low and something may have caught the runway lip—the seawall at the end of the runway.
San Francisco is one of several American airports that border bodies of water that have walls at the end of their runways to prevent planes that overrun a runway from ending up in the water.
Since the plane was about to land, its landing gear would have already been down, Barr said.
It’s possible the landing gear or the tail of the plane hit the seawall, he said. If that happened, it would effectively slam the plane into the runway, he said.
Noting that some witnesses reported hearing the plane’s engines rev up just before the crash, Barr said that would be consistent with a pilot who realized at the last minute that the plane was too low and was increasing power to the engines to try to increase altitude.
Barr said he could think of no reason why a plane would come in to land that low.
Kate Belding was out jogging just before 11:30 a.m. on a path across the water from the airport when she noticed the plane approaching the runway in a way that “just didn’t look like it was coming in quite right.”
“Then all of a sudden I saw what looked like a cloud of dirt puffing up and then there was a big bang and it kind of looked like the plane maybe bounced (as it neared the ground),” she said. “I couldn’t really tell what happened, but you saw the wings going up and (in) a weird angle.”
Four pilots were aboard the plane and they rotated on a two-person shift during the flight, according to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport in South Korea.
The two who piloted the plane at the time of crash were Lee Jeong-min and Lee Gang-guk and they are both veteran pilots, a ministry official said on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to media.
Asiana is a South Korean airline, second in size to national carrier Korean Air. It has recently tried to expand its presence in America, and joined the Star Alliance, which is anchored in the United States by United Airlines.
The 777-200 is a long-range plane from Boeing. The twin-engine aircraft is often used for flights from one continent to another because it can travel 12 hours or more without refueling.
The most notable accident involving a 777 occurred on Jan. 17, 2008, at Heathrow Airport in London. British Airways Flight 28 landed hard about 3,000 meters short of the runway and slid onto the start of the runway. The impact broke the 777-200’s landing gear. There were 47 injuries, but no fatalities.