S.F. crash: ‘We came in too low, too soon’
Two were killed and 182 injured Saturday when a 777 airliner arriving from South Korea crash-landed and caught fire at San Francisco International Airport.
The Associated Press and The New York Times
Asiana Airlines is South Korea’s second-largest airline. It has recently tried to expand its presence in the United States and joined the Star Alliance, which is anchored in the U.S. by United Airlines. A closer look:
Fleet: 79 planes, including 12 777-200ERs
Daily flights: 268
Destinations: 23 countries, 71 cities, including Seattle and New York, plus 12 cities in South Korea
Asiana Airlines, Star Alliance
SAN FRANCISCO — A Boeing 777 Asiana Airlines flight carrying 307 people slammed into the runway while landing at San Francisco International Airport on Saturday and caught fire, forcing many to escape by sliding down the emergency inflatable slides as flames tore through the plane.
Two people died in the crash of Flight 214 from Seoul, South Korea, authorities said, and 182 people were taken to hospitals, most with minor injuries. One hundred twenty-three people were not injured.
As the plane approached the runway around noon, travelers in the terminals and others witnesses could see that the aircraft was swaying unusually from side to side and that at one point the tail seemed to hit the ground.
Moments before the crash, passenger Benjamin Levy said he looked out the window and saw the piers in San Francisco Bay just off the airport runway — and they were way too close. “We were too low, too soon,” he said.
“He was going down pretty fast, and I think he just realized he was down too fast,” Levy said.
He felt the plane crash — and heard the screams of passengers — but the aircraft stayed on its belly as it landed hard on a grassy area next to the runway.
Levy, 39, of San Francisco, had been in Asia on business.
As the plane crashed, he said everything turned into slow motion. “First of all, you don’t believe it’s happening,” Levy said. “When the plane stopped, I realized I was going to be OK.”
San Francisco Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White said the investigation had been turned over to the FBI and that terrorism had been ruled out.
As smoke poured from the plane that was carrying 291 passengers and 16 crew members, passengers scrambled out of emergency exits.
Passengers described slamming into the tarmac with tremendous force in the crash and then rushing for safety as the smoke grew worse, billowing out of holes in the fuselage of the Boeing 777-200 as firefighters rushed to the wreckage on the runway. Aircraft parts scattered as the plane’s wheels, tail and engines were ripped off.
“I looked up out the window and saw the plane coming in extremely fast and incredibly heavy,” said Isabella Lacaze, 18, from Fort Worth, Texas, who witnessed the crash from the San Francisco Airport Marriott Waterfront.
“It came in at a 30- or 45-degree angle and the tail was way, way lower than the nose,” said another witness, Stefanie Turner, 32, from Arizona.
The plane clipped something as it touched down near the airport’s seawall, Lacaze said. “I remember watching the nose go to the ground and the tail way up in the air and then the tail back to ground hard,” she said, describing the plane careening out of control. At that point the tail snapped off and the rest of the plane skidded down the runway.
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.”
“Not like it was cartwheeling,” she said, but rather as though the wings were almost swaying from side to side.
An aviation official, who did not want to be identified, said the plane was not making an emergency landing, and the situation had been entirely routine until the crash. The cause was unclear.
Arnold Reiner, a retired airline captain and the former director of flight safety at Pan Am, said it appeared from television images that the jetliner had touched down far earlier than the normal landing point, which is about 1,000 feet down the runway. That runway, known as 28 Left, has a “displaced threshold,” he said, meaning that the runway’s usable area does not begin at the start of the pavement. The Instrument Landing System would normally guide the pilot to the proper touchdown point, but in clear weather, pilots sometimes fly a visual approach.
One question for investigators, Reiner said, is who was at the controls. The 777 has a two-pilot cockpit, but on a flight that long there is typically a “relief pilot” or two on board, so no one has to work continuously for the entire flight. The flight was 10 hours and 23 minutes, according to FlightAware, a flight-tracking service.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) sent a team of investigators to San Francisco to probe the crash. Safety board spokeswoman Kelly Nantel said Saturday that NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman would head the team. Boeing said it was preparing to provide technical assistance to the NTSB. The maker of the plane’s engines, Pratt & Whitney, said it was cooperating with authorities investigating the crash.
“It seems clear that the airplane hit short of the runway,” said Steven Wallace, who was the director of the office of accident investigation at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) from 2000 to 2008.
Even though the runway stretches to the seawall, planes normally would not touch down until they had passed gold markings a safe distance down the runway. But videos show significant debris between the markings and the seawall, he said.
The last few years have been an exceptionally safe period for airline travel in the United States. The last time a large U.S. 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 U.S. crash was a Continental Express flight, operated by Colgan Air, which crashed near Buffalo, N.Y., on Feb. 12, 2009. The crash killed all 49 people on board and one man in a house.
Korean carriers have historically had more difficulty. In August 2001, the FAA froze service from Korean carriers coming into the United States, limiting them to the schedules and aircraft they were then flying, because it considered safety regulation by the South Korean government inadequate. The restrictions were later lifted. In December 1999, a Korean Airlines 747 cargo jet crashed near London. In August 1997, a Korean Air 747 came in short of the runway in Guam, killing 228 people.
Material from the Los Angeles Times is included in this report.