SAN FRANCISCO — Stunned and bleeding after a Boeing 777 crash-landed at the San Francisco airport, hundreds of passengers staggered across the debris-strewn tarmac, some trying to help the critically injured, others desperately calling 911 and begging for more ambulances as dire minutes ticked away.
“There’s not enough medics out here,” a caller told a dispatcher in a 911 call released by the California Highway Patrol. “There is a woman out here on the street, on the runway, who is pretty much burned very severely on the head and we don’t know what to do.”
Two people died and 180 of the 307 passengers were hurt Saturday when Asiana Airlines Flight 214 slammed tail-first into a seawall at the end of the runway. The impact ripped off the back of the plane and tossed three flight attendants and their seats onto the runway.
The airliner, which came in too low and too slow, spun and skidded 100 feet before stopping. The battered passengers, some with broken bones, were told over the jet’s public-address system to stay in their seats for another 90 seconds while the cockpit consulted with the control tower, a safety procedure to prevent people from evacuating into life-threatening fires or machinery.
“We don’t know what the pilots were thinking, but I can tell you that in previous accidents there have been crews that don’t evacuate. They wait for other vehicles to come, to be able to get passengers out safely,” said National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman.
And in this accident, it appears one of the two Chinese teens who died may have been run over by a fire truck rushing to the burning jet.
Many passengers jumped out the back of the plane or slid down inflated slides through emergency exits. Then, say some, an unnerving wait began.
“We walked and this lady starts to appear, really stumbling and waving her hand and yelling. It took a couple seconds to register,” said Elliott Stone, who was returning from a martial arts competition in South Korea. “Then as I saw the condition she was in, I was like, oh my goodness.”
The woman collapsed, he said, and he and his family realized there might be more victims nearby, “so we started running, searching for more. I believe we ended up finding four people that were in the back in the rubble, all very bad condition. We stayed with them, comforted them, yelling for ambulances, fire trucks, anyone to come help.”
911 tapes recorded frantic callers, pleading for help.
“We’ve been on the ground, I don’t know, 20 minutes, a half hour,” said one woman. “There are people laying on the tarmac with critical injuries, head injuries. We’re almost losing a woman here. We’re trying to keep her alive.”
San Francisco Fire Department spokeswoman Mindy Talmadge said Thursday that some passengers who called 911 may not have immediately seen ambulances at the scene because they were dispatched to a nearby staging area as first responders assessed who needed to be taken to the hospital.
“There is a procedure for doing it,” Talmadge said. “You don’t cause more chaos in an already chaotic situation. You don’t do that with 50 ambulances running around all over the place.”
Within 18 minutes of receiving word of the crash, five ambulances and more than a dozen other rescue vehicles were at the scene or en route, in addition to airport fire crews and crews from San Mateo County and other agencies already on the scene, Talmadge said.
“Our response was immediate,” Talmadge said. “It’s not what you may see in the movies. That’s not how a real-life response is to a large-scale incident.”
Most of the passengers who were hurt had only minor injuries and were quickly treated and released from hospitals. On Thursday, just nine remained hospitalized, three in critical condition.
Among those who walked away without serious injury were the four pilots, including Lee Gang-kuk, who was landing the big jet for his first time at the San Francisco airport, and Lee Jeong-Min, who was training him.
While the two men had years of aviation experience, this mission involved unfamiliar duties, and it was the first time they had flown together.
Hersman said the pilot trainee told investigators he was blinded by a flash of light at about 500 feet, which would have been 34 seconds before impact and the point at which the airliner began to slow and drop precipitously. She said lasers have not been ruled out. It was unclear, however, whether the flash might have played a role in the crash.
A third pilot in the jump seat of the cockpit told investigators he was warning them their speed was too slow as they approached the runway, Hersman said.
Details emerging from Asiana pilot interviews show the captains thought the airliner’s speed was being controlled by an autothrottle set for 157 mph.
Inspectors found that the autothrottle had been “armed,” or made ready for activation, Hersman said. But investigators are still determining whether it had been engaged. In the last two minutes, there was a lot of use of autopilot and autothrottle, and investigators are going to look into whether pilots made the appropriate commands and if they knew what they were doing, she said.
Even if the autothrottle malfunctioned, Hersman stressed, the pilots were ultimately responsible for control of the airliner.
“There are two pilots in the cockpit for a reason,” she said. “They’re there to fly, to navigate, to communicate and if they’re using automation, a big key is to monitor.”
When the pilots realized the plane was in trouble, they both reached for the throttle. Passengers heard a loud roar as the plane revved up in a last-minute attempt to abort the landing.
The flight originated in Shanghai and stopped over in Seoul before making the nearly 11-hour trip to San Francisco.
On Wednesday, other survivors and their family members visited the crash site, where some shed tears and others stood in disbelief. They were kept about 50 yards away from the wreckage, which was surrounded by metal railing.
“What I think I really came for was to meet other fellow passengers and share a bit of our stories,” passenger Ben Levy said. “How we felt and how we got out of that plane.”