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The Asiana Airlines Boeing 777 plane lies burned near the runway after crash-landing at San Francisco International Airport.
The Asiana Airlines Boeing 777 plane lies burned near the runway after crash-landing at San Francisco International Airport.

San Francisco air crash passengers tell of terror

Terror, panic and confusion abound as Boeing 777 slams into runway, breaking off its tail and catching fire.

SAN FRANCISCO // 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, without 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 burnt through the fuselage with foam and water, while police officers on the ground threw 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 Chinese teenage girls found outside wreckage had been confirmed dead and 182 were taken to local 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.

He lives a few kilometres 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," he said.

Vedpal Singh, was sitting in the middle of the aircraft with his family, all of whom survived.

He said there was no warning from the pilot or other crew members before the plane touched down hard and he heard a loud nise.

"We knew something was horrible wrong," said Mr Singh, who fractured his collarbone and had his arm in a sling. "It's miraculous we survived."

Visibly shaken, he said the plane went silent before people began trying to get out any way they could.

His 15-year-old son said luggage had tumbled from the overhead bins. The entire incident lasted only about 10 seconds.

Another passenger, Benjamin Levy, 39, who had been sitting in an emergency exit row, said it looked to him as if the plane had been flying too low and too close to the bay as it approached the runway.

Mr Levy said he felt the pilot try to pull the jet up before it crashed, and thought that might have saved lives.

"Everybody was screaming. I was trying to usher them out," he said of the first seconds after the landing. "I said: 'Stay calm, stop screaming, help each other out, don't push.'"

The girls who died were found on "the exterior" of the plane, said Joanne Hayes-White, the San Francisco fire department chief. "Having surveyed that area, we're lucky that there hasn't been a greater loss."

Forty-nine people were critically injured and 132 suffered less-serious injuries.

The flight began in Shanghai, China, and had stopped over in Seoul, South Korea, before coming to San Francisco, airport officials said.

The airline said there were 16 crew members on board and 291 passengers. South Korea's ministry of land, infrastructure and transport said the passengers included 141 from China, 77 South Koreans, 61 Americans, three Canadians, three from India and one each from Japan, Vietnam and France. The nationalities of the remaining three had not been confirmed. Thirty of the passengers were children.

Chinese state media identified the dead as Ye Mengyuan and Wang Linjia, 16-year-old girls who went to school in China's eastern Zhejiang province.

At least 70 Chinese students and teachers were on the plane, heading to summer camps.

The Asiana president, Yoon Young-doo, said it would take time to determine the cause of the crash. But when asked about engine or mechanical problems, he said he did not believe they could have been the cause. He said the plane was bought in 2006. Asiana officials said the plane was also built that year.

Mr Yoon also apologised for the crash. "I am bowing my head and extending my deep apology" to the passengers, their families and the South Korean people, he said.

Based on witness accounts 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 that the plane had approached the runway too low and something may have caught the runway lip, a 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 from ending up in the water.

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