SAN FRANCISCO — At least two passengers were killed and scores were injured Saturday after a Boeing 777 airliner arriving from South Korea crash-landed and caught fire on the runway at San Francisco International Airport, authorities said.
Airport spokesman Doug Yakel said 182 of the 307 passengers and crew were taken to hospitals, with 49 in critical or serious condition. Asiana Airlines CEO Yoon Young-doo said in a news briefing on Sunday that the passengers who died were two Chinese teenage girls. He believed they were sitting in the back half of the plane.
On Sunday night, Chinese state media identified the two people who died as Ye Mengyuan and Wang Linjia, two middle school students from China’s eastern Zhejiang province, the Associated Press reported.
At an earlier news conference, the San Francisco fire chief had said that 60 people were unaccounted for, but officials reported later that they all had been located.
The crash was the first large plane to go down in U.S. airspace since November 2001, when an American Airlines Airbus A300 crashed on takeoff from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, killing all 260 people aboard as well as five people on the ground.
In Saturday’s crash in San Francisco, passengers described a normal approach that was punctuated by a sudden acceleration of the engines just as they expected the wheels to touch down. That conformed to the observation of witnesses who said the plane struggled to reach the beginning of the runway.
After the landing, the red-and-white jet was scorched from the cockpit area to just behind the wings, the aluminum skin peeled from the top of the aircraft. Emergency escape slides were deployed from the doorways, and some people who had been on board were seen moving away from the aircraft.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) launched an immediate investigation into the cause, sending a team headed by the board’s chairman, Deborah A.P. Hersman, to San Francisco. The investigators should be helped by the likelihood that the plane’s flight recorder is intact and should be relatively easy to locate.
Just after the Asiana Airlines plane crash-landed, airport tower personnel could be heard talking with the cockpit crew, with a controller saying: “Emergency vehicles are responding. Everyone is on their way.”
The tower also heard from the pilots of a United Airlines flight awaiting takeoff, with one pilot saying, “We can see people . . . and they are alive and walking around.”
A second pilot said, “Between the runways we can see two or three people, and they are moving and have survived.”
The airline said Flight 214 originated in Shanghai, flew to Seoul and then took off for California. Among the passengers were 61 from the United States, 77 from South Korea and 114 from China.
Witnesses said that the plane’s tail struck the ground first and that the aircraft braked suddenly and spun around. They said the seven-year-old plane did not appear to catch fire until it came to a halt.
A teenage boy who said he was aboard the flight told reporters that after the plane struck the ground, “the top just totally collapsed on top of a lot of people.”
The boy spoke outside a holding area for family members and some passengers. Airport personnel whisked the boy away in the midst of his account.
Ben Narasin, a writer who lives south of San Francisco, said he spoke with a pilot who described watching the plane come in “at an exceptionally high rate of descent — not of speed — and the nose was up extremely high.”
“It snapped off the tail . . . did not cartwheel. . . . He didn’t put it down,” Narasin added.
The crash closed San Francisco International Airport for hours, with many flights diverted to Los Angeles on a busy post-holiday weekend.
The National Transportation Safety Board said Flight 214 was arriving from Seoul on a clear day with unlimited visibility and light winds.
Initial reports indicated that the plane’s approach to Runway 28-Left was relatively normal, although it may have descended at a steeper angle than most flights. The plane’s tail snapped off on contact with the ground, suggesting that the pilot may have approached the runway with the plane’s nose higher in the air than normal.
The runway begins at the edge of San Francisco Bay, separated from the water by a stone seawall. Debris from the plane was spread from the seawall along the runway to the spot where the plane ended up.
The tail fin, the two small tail wings that had been joined to it and a landing gear were strewn on the runway, closer to the seawall than to the plane’s final location.
Witnesses said that after the aircraft came to rest on a dirt area beside the runway, its wings in place, flames burst through the roof. A plume of dark smoke poured from the plane.
The head of the FBI in San Francisco, Special Agent David J. Johnson, said there was no indication that terrorism played a part in the crash.
Details about injuries were unclear early Sunday morning. The Associated Press reported that San Francisco Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White said the two people who died were found on “the exterior” of the plane. According to the South Korean Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, 34 South Koreans on the plane were transported to the hospital. Ten are believed to be in serious condition and five are thought to be in critical condition.
Speaking about the crash from South Korea, Yoon said, “I sincerely apologize to the passengers, families and all the people for causing concerns.”
Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg posted a note on her Facebook page that she and three colleagues were originally slated to be on the Asiana flight.
“Taking a minute to be thankful and explain what happened,” she wrote in her Facebook post. “My family, colleagues Debbie Frost, Charlton Gholson and Kelly Hoffman and I were originally going to take the Asiana flight that just crash-landed. We switched to United so we could use miles for my family’s tickets. Our flight was scheduled to come in at the same time, but we were early and landed about 20 minutes before the crash. Our friend [David Eun] was on the Asiana flight and he is fine.”
Eun, an executive at Samsung, tweeted several pictures from the flight.
“I just crash landed at SFO. Tail ripped off. Most everyone seems fine. I’m ok. Surreal.” Eun tweeted, followed by: “Fire and rescue people all over the place. They’re evacuating the injured. Haven’t felt this way since 9/11.”
Pilots refer to a landing of this type as “coming down heavy.”
The Boeing 777 is considered a reliable aircraft with a good flight history. It was designed for long-range trips, including many transatlantic and transpacific flights.
Asiana configured its Boeing 777s to carry between 246 and 300 passengers.
The flight took off from Seoul just before 5 p.m. local time Friday for the flight across the Pacific.
There was no immediate indication as to what caused the crash, and experts were reluctant to speculate.
“These are experienced pilots and they have flown airplane lots of times,” said John Cox, an aviation safety consultant. “Why did they get it that slow and not take the corrective action? That is something the NTSB will certainly look at.”
Yoon denied the crash was caused by engine failures.
He added, “We will conduct an accurate analysis on the cause of this accident and take strong countermeasures for safe operation in the future with the lesson learned from this accident.”
Although the recorders on a Boeing 777 are in the tail section of the aircraft, they are built to survive damage of the sort sustained when the plane struck the ground.
“We are working with our counterparts in Korea,” NTSB chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman said as she boarded a San Francisco-bound plane at Reagan National Airport.
At a press briefing in Seoul, Choi Jeong-ho, who heads the South Korean government’s of Aviation Policy Bureau, said an investigation team is traveling to San Francisco. Team members are expected to thoroughly inspect the pilots when they arrive.
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 United States by United Airlines. Asiana has a fleet of 79 aircraft, including a dozen Boeing 777s. It flies to 23 countries and 71 cities.
Smaller airlines have had fatal crashes since the American Airlines accident in 2001. The last such incident in the United States involved a Colgan Air flight operated for Continental Express. It crashed into a house near Buffalo in 2009, killing all 49 passengers and one man on the ground.
According to Yonhap Television news in South Korea, six Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport officials and 30 Asiana Airline officials are traveling to San Francisco. The airline is preparing another plane for passengers’ family members.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye released a statement through a spokesperson. “I express deep consolation to the affected passengers and their family members of this unexpected accident. All relevant ministries should cooperate and provide necessary efforts and support for dealing with this matter.”
Halsey and Aratani reported from Washington. Janine Zacharia in San Francisco and Yoonjung Seo in Seoul contributed to this report.