SAN FRANCISCO — The nearly 11-hour trip across the Pacific had gone smoothly as Asiana Flight 214 approached San Francisco International Airport — an uneventful flight for the 291 passengers, including dozens of Chinese teenagers who were arriving for a summer camp to study English and to tour American colleges.
But from seat 30K, Benjamin Levy knew something was wrong. Outside his window, as the plane approached the airport where Levy, a frequent traveler, knew there should have been tarmac, there was instead a terrifying sight: the waters of San Francisco Bay.
“The pilot put the gas full steam and we tipped back up. He went full throttle to regain a bit of altitude,” Levy said, speaking from his home Sunday, a day after he survived the crash landing that killed two 16-year-old girls among the group of Chinese students and injured 180 of the nearly 300 passengers arriving from South Korea.
“We were so close to the water, the water got sprayed up,” Levy said. “There were walls of water beside the window — before we started hitting earth.”
When the screaming ceased inside the battered Boeing 777, the plane rested on its belly, with its tail and engines sheared by the crash.
The head of the National Transportation Safety Board said Sunday that the pilots came in too slowly, took too long to realize it and tried to abort the landing seconds before the crash. The South Korean Transport Ministry said the pilot, Lee Kang-guk, had only 43 hours of experience flying a 777. It was Lee’s first time piloting a 777 into the San Francisco airport, an Asiana spokeswoman said.
“For now, this itself should not be cited as if it were the cause of the accident,” Chang Man-hee, a senior aviation policy official at the ministry, said by telephone. “Mr. Lee himself was a veteran pilot going through what every pilot has to when switching to a new type of plane.”
In a dramatic moment-by-moment account, the board’s chairwoman, Deborah A.P. Hersman, suggested that crew members had little inkling of the impending crash until about seven seconds before impact when one is heard on a cockpit recorder calling for an increase in speed. The call came too late. Three seconds later, an alarm sounded a warning that the plane was about to stall, Hersman said. One-and-a-half seconds before impact, the pilots throttled the engines in an attempt to avert a crash, but before the plane could gain altitude it hit the runway, snapping off its tail section, before skidding to a stop and catching fire.
Hersman’s comments at a news briefing were based on preliminary data provided by the Boeing 777’s cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder. Other data from a private firm, FlightAware, indicated that as the plane lost forward speed, it descended much faster than normal.
She stressed that investigators could not yet draw any conclusions about the cause of the crash, which left two people dead and more than 180 injured. But she did not indicate any sign of a mechanical malfunction and focused almost exclusively on the actions of the pilots as they prepared for landing.
“Everything is on the table right now,” she said. “It is too early to rule anything out.”
Saturday was clear, with light winds, no wind shear and visibility of up to 10 miles, Hersman said. Air traffic controllers had cleared the Asiana flight for a visual approach meaning no guiding instruments were needed to land the plane.
Inside the plane
What happened to the passengers depended in part on where they were sitting.
Near the front of the plane, including the first-class cabin, some passengers left the plane clutching their carry-on luggage. In the center of the plane where Levy sat, there was no inflatable chute, as there were at other exits. At the very rear of the plane, which bore the worst of the crash damage, overhead compartments had opened upon impact, raining luggage onto the seated passengers. Levy said there was a woman with her leg crushed between two seats, which had become uprooted. Levy and others worked to free her.
Another woman near her was unconscious. “She wouldn’t move. There were two other guys, we couldn’t pick her up,” Levy said.
Suddenly, through the hole in the tail of the plane, a firefighter charged in, rushing Levy and the remaining passengers out as smoke billowed. The jetliner was on fire.
On Sunday, hospital medical officials said that nearly all of the most grievously injured passengers were in the rear of the plane, including six people in critical condition with spinal injuries, paralysis and head injuries, and a few with what was described as “road rash” as if they had been dragged.
It was not clear where the two girls who died were seated on the plane; both bodies were found on the tarmac. One of the bodies, found to the left side of the plane off the runway, may have been run over by a fire truck or other emergency vehicle in addition to her injuries from the crash, Robert J. Foucrault, the San Mateo County coroner, said Sunday.
Foucrault said his examination was not complete, so he could not confirm that was the case.
Jang Hyung Lee, 32, was seated with his wife and their 15-month-old son in the first row in economy class. He said he heard a distant thump, then a few seconds later, a louder thump, and then saw the flames of an engine on fire to the right.
He said he was lucky to be sitting toward the front of the aircraft. Doors opened. He lined up to slide down the chute, clutching his baby in a strap-on carrier on his chest. His wife grabbed the diaper bag.
The evacuation, at least in the front of the plane where the Lee family sat, was calm and orderly.
“It wasn’t really chaos. People actually took their hand carriers,” Lee said. “People in front they were pretty much okay. We could walk out by ourselves.”
His in-laws in business class had luggage fall from the overhead above their seats. His mother-in-law somehow knocked out a front tooth and his father-in-law is suffering from back pain, but they both made it safely down another chute to waiting paramedics.
Xu Da, the production manager at Taobao, the Chinese online shopping website, wrote on Sina Weibo, a Chinese blogging site, that he smelled “ the smoke, and saw the flames.”
Nevertheless, like many other passengers, he wrote that he grabbed his carry-on bags before leaving the plane.
“I grabbed my bags as soon as it stopped,” he said of the plane. “My wife was very calm — she even picked up the scattered stuff on the ground,” he wrote, adding that the couple took their bags and child as they turned toward the rear. “There was a huge hole, quite round, so we rushed out there.”
‘We were left on our own’
Strapped into his exit row midway in the plane, Levy thought his ribs had been broken. Nonetheless, he stood up inside the shattered aircraft, pried open the emergency door, and began to shout out directions.
“We were left on our own, there was no message from the pilot, from the crew, there was no one. We had to help each other out,” Levy said, describing how he and others stayed in the plane as they hustled other passengers out, shouting for people to keep calm, while 30 to 40 people exited the door beside him.
The flight had a crew of 16, including four pilots who switched off during the flight in two-man rotations. Korean officials said the main pilot at the time of the landing was Lee Jeong-min, who had more than 12,000 hours of overall flight experience and 3,220 hours in Boeing 777s. The pilot at the controls, Lee Kang-guk, 46, had almost 10,000 total flying hours, with just 43 of them in 777s, Korean officials said.
While the pilot should have recognized the abnormally strong descent, Hersman also said Sunday that construction at the airport had temporarily shut down an electronic system — called a glide slope indicator — that helps guide pilots to the runway.
Another tool, known as a localizer, which allows planes to line up along the center of the runway, was operating, as were the airport’s red and white lights that visually guide pilots to the runway.
Pilots can also use onboard GPS-based equipment to guide their approach to the runway.
Airlines had been told that the glide slope system was out of service, and many carriers, including Asiana, had been landing for weeks on that runway without difficulty, the official said. Air traffic control tapes indicate that the controller cleared the plane for a visual approach, for which the system was not necessary.
Some experts said that pilots often have little opportunity to practice landings without the aid of such technology, particularly on international flights into large, technologically advanced airports like San Francisco International.
Still, given that the weather was ideal and the guide lights were on, making a visual landing should not have been difficult for most commercial pilots, aviation experts said.
“Even if it was the least experienced crew in Asiana Airlines, the maneuver that led to this crash, on a difficulty scale of 1 to 10, this was a 2 or 3 at the most,” said Oscar Garcia, the chairman of InterFlight Global Corporation, a consulting firm.
Korean Air Lines’s crash history in the 1990s prompted the government to order its carriers to get new planes and pilots more training. Asiana Airlines’s crash on Saturday may prompt a new round of similar measures. It was South Korea’s first fatal passenger jet crash since 1997.
“Asiana’s accident is going to damage the image of not just Asiana, but all Korean airlines,” said Um Kyung A, an analyst at Shinyoung Securities in Seoul. “It only takes one incident to undermine years of work Korean airlines have made to get a solid, accident-free record. This will prompt the government to call for stricter safety measures.”
Korean Air, the country’s biggest carrier, in 2000 hired two executives who worked with U.S. airlines to help improve its safety standards after a slew of accidents, including a 1997 crash in Guam that killed 228 people. Asiana was ranked among the top five global airlines by Skytrax in each of the past five years.
South Korea’s transport ministry sent eight investigators to San Francisco on Saturday to work with the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board.
— Kyunghee Park, Bloomberg News