Two killed, many injured as South Korean plane crashes, burns in San Francisco

(Reuters) – An Asiana Airlines Boeing 777 with 307 people on board crashed and burst into flames as it landed at San Francisco International Airport on Saturday after a flight from Seoul, and initial reports said two people were killed and more than 130 sent to hospitals.

After approaching the airport across San Francisco Bay, the plane appeared to strike the edge of the approach area of the runway. The tail came off and the aircraft left a trail of debris before coming to rest beside the runway.

One survivor said the pilot seemed to be trying to gain height just before the aircraft struck the runway. There was no immediate indication of the cause of the crash and federal officials were traveling from Washington to investigate.

Pictures taken by survivors immediately after the crash showed passengers emerging from the wrecked plane and hurrying away. TV footage later showed the fuselage of the Boeing 777 blackened by fire and the interior apparently gutted.

Asiana Airlines said the flight, which had originated in Shanghai, had carried 291 passengers and 16 crew members.

San Francisco Fire Department Chief Joanna Hayes-White said two people were killed and 130 were taken to hospitals. A total of 69 people were still unaccounted for, as officials tracked down the passengers in the confusion after the crash.

Rachael Kagan, a spokeswoman for San Francisco General Hospital, said 15 injured people were being treated there and 10 were in critical condition with burns, fractures and internal injuries. She said most of them spoke only Korean.

AIRCRAFT’S TAIL BROKE OFF

Images on television station KTVU in San Francisco showed emergency chutes had been deployed from at least two of the aircraft’s exits.

Survivor Benjamin Levy told a local NBC station by phone that he believed the plane had been coming in too low.

“I know the airport pretty well, so I realized the guy was a bit too low, too fast, and somehow he was not going to hit the runway on time, so he was too low … he put some gas and tried to go up again,” he said.

“But it was too late, so we hit the runway pretty bad, and then we started going up in the air again, and then landed again, pretty hard,” Levy said.

He said he opened an emergency door and ushered people out. “We got pretty much everyone in the back section of the plane out,” he said. “When we got out there was some smoke. There was no fire then, the fire came afterward.”

Ying Kong, of Albany, New York, who was waiting at the airport for her brother-in-law, Fawen Yan, 47, from Richmond, California, said he telephoned her after surviving the crash to say it had been “really smoky and scary.”

“He feels it difficult to breathe, but he’s okay,” she said. She added: “He said a lot of people had to run. He said some people got hurt.”

AIR TRAFFIC HALTED

Air traffic at the airport was halted immediately after the crash, which took place under sunny skies with only a slight breeze, but flights resumed on two runways several hours later.

The Asiana flight departed from Seoul at 5:04 p.m. Korean time and touched down in San Francisco at 11:28 a.m PDT, according to FlightAware, a website that tracks flights. The flight lasted 10 hours and 24 minutes, it said.

Asiana Airlines said the passengers included 141 Chinese, 77 South Koreans and 61 U.S. citizens. It did not give the nationality of the others.

Deborah Hersman, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said the agency was sending a team of investigators to San Francisco and that it is too early to determine the cause of the crash.

“We will be looking at everything,” she told reporters. “Everything is on the table. We have to gather the facts before we reach any conclusions.”

She was speaking at Reagan National Airport in Arlington, Virginia, outside Washington.

The FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said her agency was also sending investigators.

Boeing expressed concern for those on board the flight and added that it will provide technical assistance to the NTSB as it investigates the accident.

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