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Fire chief: 2 dead in SF crash found outside jet

Sunday - 7/7/2013, 5:17am  ET

David Johnson, FBI special agent in charge of the San Francisco Division, foreground, speaks in front of Mayor Ed Lee, from left, Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White, and Korean Consulate of San Francisco Dongman Han at a news conference after Asiana Flight 214 crashed at San Francisco International Airport in San Francisco, Saturday, July 6, 2013. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
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JOAN LOWY
Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- An Asiana Airlines flight packed with more than 300 people slammed onto the runway while landing at San Francisco airport Saturday and caught fire, forcing many to escape by sliding down the emergency inflatable slides and into a trail of metal debris as flames tore through the plane.

At least two people who were found outside the wreckage died in the crash, while another 182 people were taken to hospitals, many with minor injuries, authorities said. Forty-nine people were reported to be in critical condition, San Francisco International Airport spokesman Doug Yakel said.

As the plane approached the runway from the waters of San Francisco Bay around noon, travelers in the terminals and others eyewitnesses could see that the aircraft was swaying unusually from side to side and that at one point the tail seemed to hit the ground before breaking off.

Kate Belding, who was jogging a few miles away, said she thought: "Oh my God. That plane is crashing."

By the time the flames were out, much of the top of the Boeing 777's fuselage had burned away. The tail section was gone, with pieces of it scattered across the beginning of the runway. One engine appeared to have broken away. Emergency responders could be seen walking inside the burned-out wreckage.

News of the crash spread quickly on Twitter and the Internet in this wired city, with eyewitnesses tweeting their stories, posting images of the plumes of smoke rising above the bay and uploading video of passengers fleeing the burning plane.

"It just looked really bad," Belding said. "I've seen the pictures of it since then, and it's amazing anyone walked out of that plane."

The investigation has been turned over to the FBI and terrorism has been ruled out, San Francisco Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White said. Federal aviation and transportation investigators were heading to the scene. Asiana, Boeing and the engine manufacturer, Pratt & Whitney, pledged to work with them.

Vedpal Singh, who was sitting in the middle of the aircraft and survived the crash with his family, said there was no forewarning from the pilot or any crew members before the plane touched down hard and he heard a loud sound.

"We knew something was horrible wrong," said Singh, who suffered a fractured collarbone and had his arm was in a sling.

"It's miraculous we survived," he said.

A visibly shaken Singh said the plane went silent before people tried to get out anyway they could. His 15-year-old son said luggage tumbled from the overhead bins The entire incident lasted about 10 seconds.

Another passenger, Benjamin Levy, 39, said it looked to him that the plane was flying too low and too close to the bay as it approached the runway. Levy, who was sitting in an emergency exit row, said he felt the pilot try to lift the jet up before it crashed, and thinks the maneuver might have saved some lives.

"Everybody was screaming. I was trying to usher them out," he recalled of the first seconds after the landing. "I said, 'Stay calm, stop screaming, help each other out, don't push.'"

Hayes-White said she did not know the ages or genders of the people who died, but said they were found on "the exterior" of the plane. She said the 307 passengers and crew members had been aboard had been accounted for following several hours of confusion during which authorities said they were unsure of the whereabouts of more than 60 people who, as it turned out, had been evacuated to a different area of the airport.

Based on witness accounts in the news and video of the wreckage, Mike Barr, a former military pilot and accident investigator who teaches aviation safety at the University of Southern California, said it appeared the plane approached the runway too low and something may have caught the runway lip -- the seawall at the end of the runway.

San Francisco is one of several airports around the country that border bodies of water that have walls at the end of their runways to prevent planes that overrun a runway from ending up in the water.

Since the plane was about to land, its landing gear would have already been down, Barr said. It's possible the landing gear or the tail of the plane hit the seawall, he said. If that happened, it would effectively slam the plane into the runway, he said.

Noting that some witnesses reported hearing the plane's engines rev up just before the crash, Barr said that would be consistent with a pilot who realized at the last minute that the plane was too low and was increasing power to the engines to try to increase altitude. Barr said he could think of no reason why a plane would come in to land that low.

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