A ‘miracle’ so many survived airline crash

Police officers threw knives up to crew members inside the burning wreckage of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 so they could cut away passengers’ seat belts.

Passengers jumped down emergency slides, escaping the smoke. One walked through a hole where a rear bathroom had been.

Amid the chaos, some urged fellow passengers to keep calm, even as flames tore through the Boeing 777’s fuselage.

As investigators try to determine what caused the crash of Flight 214 that killed two passengers yesterday at San Francisco International Airport, the accident left many wondering how nearly all 307 people aboard were able to make it out alive.

The Boeing 777 slammed into the runway, 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.

Two Chinese teenage girls found outside wreckage were 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.

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 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 thinks that might have saved 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 the two who died were found on “the exterior” of the plane. “Having surveyed that area, we’re lucky that there hasn’t been a greater loss.”

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 291 passengers. South Korea’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport said that the plane’s passengers included 141 Chinese, 77 South Koreans, 61 Americans, three Canadians, three from India, one Japanese, one Vietnamese and one from France, while the nationalities of the remaining three haven’t been confirmed. Thirty of the passengers were children.

Chinese state media identified the dead as two 16-year-old girls who were middle school students in China’s eastern Zhejiang province. China Central Television cited a fax from Asiana Airlines to the Jiangshan city government. They were identified as Ye Mengyuan and Wang Linjia.

At least 70 students and teachers were on the plane heading to summer camps, according to education authorities in China.

Asiana president Yoon Young-doo said it will take time to determine the cause of the crash. But when asked about the possibility of engine or mechanical problems, he said he doesn’t believe they could have been the cause. He said the plane was bought in 2006 but didn’t provide further details or elaborate. Asiana officials later said the plane was also built that year.

Yoon also bowed and offered an apology. “I am bowing my head and extending my deep apology” to the passengers, their families and the South Korean people over the crash, he said.

South Korean president Park Geun-hye offered her condolences to the families of passengers and said her government would make all necessary efforts to help handle the aftermath.

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.

Four pilots were aboard the plane and they rotated on a two-person shift during the flight.


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