SAN FRANCISCO – The Asiana Airlines jet that crashed at San Francisco International Airport was traveling much slower than recommended and a pilot asked to abort the landing moments before the plane smashed into the ground, U.S. investigators said Sunday.
The flight data recorder also showed that as the Boeing 777 approached the runway its pilots were warned that the aircraft was likely to stall. The plane burst into flames, killing two people and injuring 182 others shortly after it hit the runway.
The request to abort the landing was captured on the cockpit voice recorder 1.5 seconds before the plane crashed, said National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chairwoman Deborah Hersman, who is leading the probe.
Her announcement came minutes after a video obtained by CNN confirmed that the aircraft, carrying more than 300 people, clipped a seawall short of the airport and skidded on its belly onto the runway.
The footage showed the nose up with the rear of the plane hitting the ground first, before it rolled on to the concrete, abruptly bounced upward and then spun round 180 degrees.
The two passengers who died were teenage Chinese girls.
San Mateo County Coroner Robert Foucrault said San Francisco Fire Department officials notified him and his staff at the crash site Saturday that one of the two 16-year-old Chinese girls who died may have been run over and killed by an emergency vehicle on the runaway. His office was conducting an autopsy.
“We were made aware of the possibility at the scene that day,” Foucrault said, adding that he did not get a thorough look at the victims Saturday to know if they had external injuries.
One of the bodies was found on the runway near where the plane’s tail broke off upon impact, he said. The other was found on the left side of the aircraft about 9 meters away from where the plane came to rest after it skidded down the tarmac and not far from an emergency slide.
San Francisco Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White did not return telephone calls. Earlier Sunday, Hayes-White had said she did not know if the two dead girls were alive when her crews arrived on scene.
But she told the San Francisco Chronicle on Sunday that the girl found on the side of the airplane had injuries consistent with having been run over.
“As it possibly could have happened, based on the injuries sustained, it could have been one of our vehicles that added to the injuries, or another vehicle,” she told The Chronicle. “That could have been something that happened in the chaos. It will be part of our investigation.”
Foucrault said the autopsy, which he expects to be completed by Monday, will involve determining whether the girl’s death was caused by injuries from the crash or “a secondary incident.”
The coroner said both girls were pronounced dead at the airport.
Chinese state media and Asiana Airlines have identified the girls as Ye Mengyuan and Wang Linjia, students in Zhejiang province. They were part of a group of 29 students and five teachers who were heading to summer camps in California, according to education authorities in China.
Asked about the speed at which the plane was traveling, Hersman stressed that it was well below a desired pace of 137 knots.
“We have to take another look at the raw data and corroborate it with radar and air traffic information to make sure we have a very precise speed. But again, we are not talking about a few knots here or there. We’re talking about a significant amount of speed below 137,” she said.
The crash sheared off the plane’s landing gear and ripped the tail off. Large portions of the fuselage were burned out in the massive fire that erupted.
Earlier Sunday, Yoon Young-doo, the CEO of Seoul-based Asiana Airlines, said that “currently we understand that there are no engine or mechanical problems” with the plane, which was bought in 2006.
Hersman refused to comment on whether the flight crew was at fault, noting that the pilots would be interviewed and stressing that it was still only the first day of the investigation.
However she said the plane’s low speed triggered an automatic device called a “stick shaker,” which warns pilots that a plane is about to stall. The warning came four seconds before the crash — 2.5 seconds before one of the pilots tried to abort the landing.
“There was a call out for a go around from one of the crew at 1.5 seconds prior to impact,” Hersman said. “And the call out is a — is communication between the crew that they want to go around, that means they want to not land but apply power and go around and try to land again.”
Analysts said the pilot’s request came far too late.
Asiana Flight 214 originated in Shanghai and had 307 people on board — 291 passengers and 16 crew — after it stopped to pick up passengers in Seoul.
The plane was being flown by experienced pilots and there was no emergency warning ahead of the crash, Yoon said, adding that “our pilots strictly comply with aviation rules.”
“Please accept my deepest apology,” the CEO added, bowing in front of TV cameras at a news conference in Seoul.
Several of the injured were still in critical condition or unconscious, San Francisco General Hospital said.
Doctors saw “large amounts of abdominal injuries, a huge amount of spine fracture, some of which include paralysis, and head trauma and multiple type of orthopedic injuries,” Margaret Knudson, interim surgery chief at the hospital, told reporters.
Some 15 or 16 had yet to regain consciousness, she said, adding that “some of our patients have been operated on twice already, and there’s going to be many many more surgeries to come still.”
Other patients had been sent to different area hospitals.
Aboard the flight were 141 Chinese nationals, 77 South Koreans, 64 Americans, one Japanese, three Indians, three Canadians, one French, one Vietnamese and three others of unidentified nationality. There were also 16 crew members, according to Asiana.
In total, 123 people aboard the flight escaped unharmed, U.S. officials said.
San Francisco International Airport was closed after the crash but operating normally Sunday.
The twin-engine 777 aircraft is one of the world’s most popular long-distance planes, often used for flights of 12 hours or more, from one continent to another.
It was the first fatal crash involving an Asiana passenger plane since June 1993, when a Boeing 737 operated by the carrier crashed into a mountain in South Korea, killing 68.