SAN FRANCISCO — An Asiana Airlines passenger jet traveling from Seoul, South Korea, crashed while landing Saturday at San Francisco International Airport, smashed into pieces, and caught fire, killing at least two people and injuring more than 180 others.
Smoke billowed out of holes in the fuselage of the Boeing 777 on Saturday afternoon as firefighters rushed to douse the wreckage and passengers scrambled to safety down inflated escape chutes. The plane’s tail, landing gear, and one of its engines were ripped off.
“It hit with its tail, spun down the runway, and bounced,” said one witness, Stefanie Turner, 32. Despite incredible damage to the plane, left dismembered and scarred, with large chunks of its body burned away, many of the 307 aboard were able to walk away on their own.
Forty-nine passengers were initially taken to area hospitals, said Dale Carnes, assistant deputy chief of the San Francisco Fire Department. An additional 132 were later taken to hospitals, he said, and 123 were uninjured. The whereabouts of one person was unknown.
“We observed multiple numbers of people coming down the chutes and walking to their safety,” said Joanne Hayes-White, the fire chief. At least five people were listed in critical condition at hospitals. Officials said they had searched the wreckage and found no bodies.
One passenger, a South Korean teenager, said the plane “went up and down, and then it hit the ground.
“The top collapsed on people, so there were many injuries,” he said, referring to the overhead compartments.
The crash comes after a remarkable period of safety for airlines in the United States. It had been more than four years since the last fatal crash involving a commercial airliner — a record unmatched for half a century. Globally, too, last year was the safest since 1945, with 23 deadly accidents and 475 fatalities, according to the Aviation Safety Network, an accident researcher.
It was not immediately clear what caused this plane to lose control on a clear summer morning. The National Transportation Safety Board said it had dispatched a team from Washington to investigate, and declined to speculate. But witnesses said the plane approached the airport at an awkward angle, and seemed to hit its tail before bouncing down the runway. When it stopped, they said, passengers had scant time to escape before a blaze burned through the fuselage.
“I looked up out the window and saw the plane coming in extremely fast and incredibly heavy,” said Isabella Lacaze, 18, from Texas, who saw 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,” Turner said. The tail hit first, she said, and the plane careened down the runway.
“The back got the worst of it,” a passenger on the plane, Elliot Stone, told CNN. He said the plane seemed to be coming in at a sharp angle and just as they reached the runway, it seemed to gain speed. It hit the tarmac with tremendous force, he said, and the people in the back of the plane “got hammered.”
Some passengers scrambled out before the chutes deployed, he said. A number of people lay injured near the wreckage for 20 to 30 minutes before ambulances arrived, Stone said. Many people got off relatively unscathed, but he saw at least five people with severe injuries. The two people who died were found outside the damaged jetliner.
David Eun, who said in a Twitter message that he had been a passenger on the plane, posted a picture of a downed Asiana jetliner from ground level, which showed some passengers walking away from the aircraft.
Flame retardant materials inside the plane, including foil wrapping under the seats, most likely helped protect many passengers, said Steven B. Wallace, who was director of the office of accident investigation at the Federal Aviation Administration from 2000 to 2008.
The FAA has required the use of such materials for several decades. Wallace said that even though an Air France A340 suffered a worse fire after overrunning a runway in Toronto in 2005, all 309 people on board survived. Only 12 were seriously injured.
“It seems clear that the airplane hit short of the runway,” Wallace said. “Why that happened, I don’t know.”
Wallace, a licensed commercial pilot, said the pilot could have made a mistake and come in too low or there could have been wind shear.
An aviation official, who did not want to be identified discussing a developing investigation, said the plane was not making an emergency landing, and the situation had been routine until the crash.
If the plane touched down too soon, before the tarmac or before the area intended for landings, it may have torn off its landing gear, and been skidding along on its engine cowlings, said Arnold Reiner, a retired airline captain and the former director of flight safety at Pan Am. “At that point, all bets are off,” he said, and the tail may have hit the ground with more force than the fuselage was intended to handle.
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 such a long period. That may have resulted in a junior person at the controls.
It said in a statement that it was trying to find the number of casualties and the cause of the accident, and “will cooperate with the related authorities.” Of the 291 passengers, the statement said, 77 were South Koreans, 141 Chinese, 61 American, and one Japanese. A flight crew of 16 was also on board.
The transportation safety board said it would examine a variety of factors, including human performance, weather, and maintenance issues in its investigation. Wallace said the flight data recorder on the Asiana 777 is likely still intact, though it was probably in the severed part of the tail.