WASHINGTON – The first major U.S. plane 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 over 9,000 km 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.
And then in a searing scrape of metal against stone, the plane’s tail struck the seawall separating the edge of the runway from the bay. Within a minute or so, the plane was on fire.
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 kilometers toward Runway 28-Left, there was no indication from the cockpit — either to the control tower or the passengers — that anything was amiss. But Levy wasn’t the only passenger familiar with the approach to wonder if 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.
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 as he was being treated at a hospital. “When the pilot realized, he put 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 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 didn’t 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 between two runways. “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 your sure?” and reached for a phone.
On board Flight 214, the reaction was immediate.
“We were, like, 10 seconds from being home,” said passenger Elliott Stone. “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 (meters).”
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.
The initial cabin smoke was minimal compared to 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.
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