SAN FRANCISCO -- A Boeing 777 from South Korea crashed while landing and caught fire yesterday on the runway at San Francisco, killing at least two people. Hundreds of others escaped the smoking wreckage.
Asiana Airlines said the flight carried 291 passengers -- including 61 Americans -- and 16 crew members.
Surviving passengers and crew jumped down the emergency inflatable slides as smoke billowed through the shattered airliner. Airport spokesman Doug Yakel said 181 people were taken to local hospitals.
Ten crash victims arrived in critical condition at San Francisco General Hospital, spokeswoman Rachael Kagan told reporters, but five were later upgraded to serious condition. All are Korean speakers and two were children. Their injuries include fractures and burns, she said.
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Passengers on the flight from Incheon International Airport, near Seoul, to San Francisco International Airport described a normal approach that was punctuated by a sudden acceleration of the engines just before they expected the wheels to touch down. That conformed with the observation of other witnesses who said the plane struggled to reach the start of the runway.
The plane's tail snapped off on contact with the ground, suggesting that the pilot may have approached the runway with its nose higher in the air than normal.
A passenger named Lee told South Korean broadcaster YTN by telephone that as the plane was about to land, its nose was angled unusually high. The tail struck first, the plane bobbed upward from the impact, and then crashed fully onto the runway. At the second impact, fire broke out, the man said.
Flames scorched the red and white jet from its cockpit area to just behind its wings, peeling back the aluminum skin from the top of the aircraft. Television footage showed the entire tail was gone and one engine appeared to have broken away. Emergency escape slides were deployed from the doorways.
David Eun, executive vice president of Samsung, the South Korean electronics company, tweeted photos of the evacuation from the runway.
"I just crash landed at SFO. Tail ripped off. Most everyone seems fine. I'm ok. Surreal," his first tweet said. Minutes later, he tweeted, "Haven't felt this way since 9/11."
Witnesses described the tail striking first and then said the plane braked suddenly and spun around. They said the seven-year-old plane did not appear to catch fire until it came to a halt.
Passenger Elliot Stone, who owns a martial arts academy in Santa Cruz County, told CNN, "The back got the worst of it." He said the fire "wasn't instantaneous."
From a distance
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."
The National Transportation Safety Board said Asiana Flight 214 was arriving on a clear day with unlimited visibility and light winds.
The San Francisco Airport runway begins at the very edge of San Francisco Bay, separated from the water by a stone seawall. Debris from the crashed flight was spread from the seawall along the runway to the spot where the plane ended up.
The red, yellow and white tail fin, the two small tail wings that had been joined to it and a set of landing gear were strewn on the runway, closer to the seawall than the plane's final location.
The aircraft came to rest on a dirt area beside the runway, its wings in place, and flames burst through the roof. A plume of dark smoke poured from the plane.
Facebook's 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 but switched to United Airlines so she could use miles for family members traveling with her.
"Taking a minute to be thankful," she wrote in her Facebook post.
The B777 is considered a reliable aircraft with a good flight history. It was designed for long-range trips, including many trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific flights.
Asiana configured its B777s to carry between 246 and 300 passengers.
The flight took off from Inchon just before 5 p.m. local time Friday for the 10-hour, 23-minute flight across the Pacific.
The NTSB launched an immediate investigation, sending a team headed by the board's Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman to San Francisco.
Asiana is a South Korean airline, second in size to national carrier Korean Air, with a fleet of 79 aircraft, including a dozen Boeing 777s. It flies to 23 countries and 71 cities.
The crash is the most serious on U.S. soil since 50 people were killed on Feb. 12, 2009, near Buffalo, when a regional turboprop plane operated by Pinnacle Airlines Corp.'s former Colgan unit plunged to the ground.