After nearly 11 hours in the air, the passengers and crew aboard a jumbo jetliner travelling 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 all were accounted for several hours later, two people found outside the wreckage had been confirmed dead and 182 transported to area hospitals.
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 miles 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,’’ he said.
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 thinks the manoeuver 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.’’’ San Francisco Fire Department Chief Joanne Hayes-White 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. San Mateo County Coroner Robert Foucrault told the San Jose Mercury News 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 Xinhuah, 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.
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 airports around the country 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 realised 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 11.30am 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.’’
Samsung executive David Eun, who was on board of the crashed plane, has tweeted a photo of people streaming out of the jet, with the aircraft's belly on the ground and its tail missing.
— David Eun (@Eunner) July 6, 2013
Numerous flights headed to San Francisco were diverted to other airports. A United Airlines flight bound for San Francisco was sent to Los Angeles airport, and passengers were told the San Francisco airport would be closed for at least three hours.
Asiana is a South Korean airline, second in size to national carrier Korean Air.
It has recently tried to expand its presence in the United States, and joined the Star Alliance, which is anchored in the US by United Airlines.
The 777-200 is a long-range plane from Boeing. The twin-engine aircraft is one of the world's most popular long-distance planes, often used for flights of 12 hours or more, from one continent to another.
The airline's website says its 777s can carry between 246 to 300 passengers.
The flight was 10 hours and 23 minutes, according to FlightAware, a flight tracking service.
The 777 is a smaller, wide-body jet that can travel long distances without refuelling and is typically used for long flights over water.
The most notable accident involving a 777 occurred on Jan. 17, 2008 at Heathrow Airport in London.
British Airways Flight 28 landed hard about 1,000 feet 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. An investigation revealed ice pellets that had formed in the fuel were clogging the fuel-oil heat exchanger, blocking fuel from reaching the plane's engines.
The Rolls-Royce Trent 800 series engines that were used on the plane were then redesigned. Bill Waldock, an expert on aviation accident investigation, said he was reminded of the Heathrow accident as he watched video of Saturday's crash.
''Of course, there is no indication directly that's what happened here,'' he said.
''That's what the investigation is going to have to find out.'' The Asiana 777 ''was right at the landing phase and for whatever reason the landing went wrong,'' said Waldock, director of the Embry-Riddle University accident investigation laboratory in Prescott, Arizona.
''For whatever reason, they appeared to go low on approach and then the airplane pitched up suddenly to an extreme attitude, which could have been the pilots trying to keep it out of the ground.''
The last time a large US airline lost a plane in a fatal crash was an American Airlines Airbus A300 taking off from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York in 2001. Smaller airlines have had crashes since then.
The last fatal US crash was a Continental Express flight operated by Colgan Air, which crashed into a house near Buffalo, New York on Feb. 12, 2009.
The crash killed all 49 people on board and one man in a house. Flying remains one of the safest forms of transportation: There are about two deaths worldwide for every 100 million passengers on commercial flights, according to an Associated Press analysis of government accident data.
Just a decade ago, passengers were 10 times as likely to die when flying on an American plane.
The risk of death was even greater during the start of the jet age, with 1,696 people dying - 133 out of every 100 million passengers - from 1962 to 1971. The figures exclude acts of terrorism.
Asia remains one of the fastest-growing regions for aviation in the world. Even with slowing economies in Japan and China, airlines there saw 3.7 percent more passengers than a year ago, according to the International Air Transport Association.
Finding enough experienced pilots to meet a growing number of flights is becoming a problem. A 2012 report by aircraft manufacturer Boeing said the industry would need 460,000 new commercial airline pilots in the next two decades - with 185,000 of them needed in Asia alone.
''The Asia-Pacific region continues to present the largest projected growth in pilot demand,'' the report said.
-with AP, Reuters
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