The first major U.S. jumbo-jet crash in a dozen years began to unfold in utterly undramatic fashion just before noon Saturday when a big white passenger jet with red, blue and yellow flashings banked to the right and began to descend toward the wide runways of San Francisco International Airport.
Inside the plane, seat backs were in the upright position, tray tables were locked in place and the laptops, books and toys that had entertained for more than 10 hours and 5,651 miles were stowed away for landing.
Outside, the skies were clear of the fog that so often shrouds San Francisco Bay and the wind was light. Asiana Flight 214 was expected to reach the gate within minutes.
Benjamin Levy, who said he flies into the airport often, said he wondered about the approach when he saw that piers jutting out into the bay were much closer than he thought they ought to be.
A pilot who sat on the runway awaiting the okay to take off glanced up just before Flight 214 reached the runway and thought the nose of the Boeing 777 was tilted up at too high an angle for an approach.
And then in a searing scrape of metal against stone, the plane’s tail struck the sea wall that separates the edge of the runway from the bay. Within a minute or two, the plane was in flames. Two people died — both identified as Chinese citizens who boarded the flight at its origin in Shanghai — and scores of the 307 on board were sent to hospitals.
The following account of the crash of Asiana Flight 214 is compiled from interviews by Washington Post reporters and other news media accounts.
As the plane traveled those final miles toward Runway 28-Left, there was no indication from the cockpit — to the control tower or the passengers — that anything was amiss. But Levy was not the only passenger to wonder whether something was wrong.
“It was coming too fast, and the angle was too steep,” said Jang Hyung Lee, 32, who thought something was wrong with the plane’s angle.
“We were too low, too soon,” Levy said. “He was going down pretty fast, and I think he just realized he was down too fast.”
A split second from the runway, passengers expecting the comforting thud of wheels touching down instead heard the engines respond to a throttle pushed hard.
“I think the pilot must have realized because the pilot tried to pull the plane back up,” said Levy, 39, who was interviewed several times as he was being treated at a hospital. “When the pilot realized, he [gave it] some more gas to correct the plane again. We hit the runway pretty bad and started going back up in the air again and landed again pretty hard.”
From the airport terminal and nearby hotel windows, those who happened to glance toward the runway saw what happened next.
Kate Belding was running along a path near the airport when she noticed the plane approaching at an angle that did not seem quite right.
“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,” Belding said. “I couldn’t really tell what happened, but you saw the wings going up and [at] a weird angle.”
Stephanie Turner, who was staying in a hotel near the airport, said she also studied the approach.
“It didn’t manage to straighten out before hitting the runway,” Turner said. “So the tail of the plane hit the runway, and it . . . spun and the tail broke off. . . . And it looked like the plane had completely broken apart. There were flames and smoke just billowing.”
Dan Glickman watched from another angle.
“It just pancaked immediately. It collapsed and then it slid,” Glickman said. “It just kept sliding and sliding and sliding. I was surprised it didn’t come apart. It was unreal.”
Kristina Stapchuck saw the tail rip off and then the long slide down the runway before the plane spun off into the dirt.
“It all happened so suddenly,” said Stapchuck, who watched from the window of another airplane.
From the terminal, Krista Seiden saw the plane “hit the ground, and it skidded on its belly.”
She turned to a counter agent for U.S. Airways and said, “A plane just crashed.”
The agent responded, “What? Are you sure?” and reached for a phone.
On board Flight 214, the reaction was immediate.
“We were, like, 10 seconds from being home,” passenger Elliott Stone said. “Then the back end just hit and everything flies up in the air and everybody’s head goes up to the ceiling.”
Levy said: “I thought the wheels were gone for sure. You don’t believe it’s happening.”
Stone recalled: “The back got the worst of it. It opened up. The flight attendants got dropped out the back. They had decided to sit, and they got put out by the impact there. Then we fishtailed for another 300 yards.”
The cabin filled with the screams of passengers and the roar of the plane sliding on its belly.
Lee said he felt one bump and then a second, more violent smash. He wrapped his arms around his 16-month-old son as smoke began to fill the plane.
Levy, who was seated just behind the wing on the plane’s right side, made his way toward an emergency door.
“A lot of people were screaming and not really believing what was happening,” Levy said.
The initial cabin smoke was minimal compared with that produced by the fire that was about to ravage the plane from the cockpit area to behind the wings, leaving a sooty gash in the aircraft’s roof.
But before those flames broke out, there were seconds for the passengers to flee. First they had to negotiate luggage that had tumbled from overhead bins and blocked the path to escape.
Levy said he pushed the luggage aside as he reached an emergency exit and pulled the lever. The slide he expected did not deploy from the door — although at least two did from other doorways — so he helped people step down.
“When we got out there was some smoke. There was no fire then. The fire came afterward,” Levy said. “People were pushing each other out. There was a lot of commotion. We got pretty much everyone in the back section of the plane out. I’m so thankful so many people got out of the plane quickly.”
Lee and his wife, Jennifer, jumped down an evacuation slide and ran from the plane.
From the cockpit of a United flight awaiting takeoff, one of the two pilots told the tower that people were “alive and walking around” between the two runways. “Two or three people, and they are moving and have survived,” the other said.
Authorities said 305 of the people on board were able to escape before fire engulfed the cabin. They may have survived because after a flight of more than 10 hours, the plane had burned much of its fuel.
“Outside there were people on stretchers, neck braces and stuff,” Stone said. “There were five people that we saw that were just terrible. Bad, bad news.”
As the Lees fled, a big plume of black smoke rose from the fuselage.
“It was scary,” Jennifer Lee said.