SAN FRANCISCO -- On a picture-perfect Saturday morning, a packed Boeing 777 from Seoul crash-landed at San Francisco International Airport, killing two 16-year-old passengers and forcing more than 300 survivors to slide down emergency chutes and climb over wreckage as the roof of the plane erupted into roiling flames and plumes of smoke.
Dozens of witnesses and passengers described a chaotic scene after Asiana Airlines Flight 214 apparently clipped a sea wall in front of the runway, snapping off its tail. The plane violently bounced twice before sliding to a stop as hundreds watched horrified from planes waiting to take off.
The survivors included Silicon Valley tech executives, a martial arts group from Scotts Valley and South Korean schoolchildren on an exchange program.
One San Francisco man, Jang Hyung Lee, 32, said he held his 15-month-old son tightly on his lap as the plane bounced hard on the tarmac, hurling luggage and laptops around the cabin. "I didn't want to lose him," Lee said.
Vedpal Singh, who had been sitting with his family in the middle of the aircraft, described the crash as 10 seconds of horror. Fire officials said when they arrived, some passengers were coming out of the shallow bay water, "to maybe douse themselves.''
"It was miraculous we survived,'' said Singh, who suffered a fractured collarbone. Singh, who works in South Korea, was coming to the Bay Area to visit his brother.
Many passengers, including Samsung executive David Eun, posted photos and messages after their escape that swirled through social media: "Fire and rescue people all over the place," Eun posted on Path. "They're evacuating the injured. Haven't felt this way since 9/11. Trying to help people stay calm. Deep breaths ..."
Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg posted on her Facebook page that she was supposed to be on that flight, but changed her plans to another airline so her children could use her frequent flier miles.
San Mateo County Coroner Robert Foucrault said late Saturday the two passengers who were killed were both 16-year-old females, from either Korea or China. One appeared to have been thrown from the rear of the plane and landed on the runway when the tail broke off, he said. The other was found near the wreckage.
"When the plane made impact with the ground and had come apart, the first victim was probably ejected from the aircraft,'' he said. "The second was found outside the aircraft near the left wing.''
Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board were arriving from Washington to begin probing what caused one of the worst airline crashes in Bay Area history. Boeing's 777s are considered among the safest jetliners, having never been involved in a fatal crash since they started flying in 1995, according to AirSafe.com,
Asiana Airlines Flight 214 originated in Shanghai and stopped in Seoul, South Korea, carrying 291 passengers, and 16 crew. SFO was shut down for hours as 182 passengers were taken to local hospitals; 49 were seriously injured, some with burns.
"It was disbelief, screaming,'' passenger and San Francisco businessman Benjamin Levy said Saturday night at San Francisco General Hospital where he was treated for bruised ribs.
At the moment of the crash, "in your head everything goes into slow motion. You don't believe its happening.
"It's like a Six Flags show, right? You're tied up to your chair, and then again we're skipping down the runway and I felt like maybe we were going back up and start flying again, trying to improvise another landing.''
At first people tried pushing their way to the exits, but soon they calmed down. Levy said he opened the lever of an emergency door but the chute failed to deploy, so passengers were forced to climb five or six feet down over piles of debris.
Dramatic aerial images showing the giant, blackened hole stretching across the top of the plane, with the charred, melted passenger seats inside, indicate just how lucky the passengers were to get out in time. Several passengers interviewed said there was no indication of any problems until their final approach just seconds before the 11:27 a.m. crash when they could tell the plane was coming in at an "awkward angle."
The National Transportation Safety Board was headed to the Bay Area to lead the investigation.
Luggage containers popped open above the seats, sending laptops and suitcases tumbling down. Some saw flames and smoke outside the plane as they scrambled out.
Levy was sitting in a window seat near the back of the plane when he realized the pilot was coming in "way too low." When the plane's tail struck the sea wall, Levy said, the pilot "started pushing the throttle again to go back up because he realized he wasn't going to make it. So there was a lot of water splashing onto the engine. Basically I think we almost landed in the water.'' Within minutes, flames and smoke billowed from the top of the plane, but not much of it reached the cabin as passengers scrambled out.
Lee, an architectural designer from San Francisco who was holding his toddler son, told this newspaper he could tell something was wrong in the final seconds before the landing. The plane was flying at an awkward angle, he said. "I actually kind of knew it was going to crash," he said.
Elliott Stone and his martial arts group were on their way home to Scotts Valley from a competition in South Korea. He told CNN that he felt a jolt, and the plane tipped on its side, then erupted in flames.
"Everyone was pushing, rushing out," he said. Some passengers slid down emergency chutes, but Stone told CNN that he and others were forced to jump to safety. He also said passengers in the back of the plane suffered the worst injuries.
"There were five that we saw that were just terrible," he said.
Within minutes, fire crews were on the scene, spreading foam and water to dampen the inferno, helping passengers out of the plane and searching the fuselage for survivors.
At Stanford Hospital, one young passenger said the crash happened so quickly and passengers got out so fast, there was little time to panic.
"The fireman kept saying we were OK," said the young woman, who didn't want to be identified.
NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman said teams were headed to SFO to study flight data recorders and begin the investigation. "We have a lot of work to do," she said. The FBI is also assisting in the investigation, and an FBI spokesman said Saturday afternoon that there is no indication of a terrorist attack.
SFO officials said the runway in question -- 28L -- had recently undergone safety upgrades with crews adding structures for landing lights and commissioning a new taxiway. The work was part of a federally mandated project to make sure runways are long enough and wide enough to deal with emergency landings or aborted takeoffs.
Two of the airport's four runways were reopened late Saturday afternoon, but many flights are still being diverted to airports in Oakland, San Jose and Sacramento. SFO officials did not say when full service would be restored. Seventeen flights that had been diverted from SFO landed at Mineta San Jose International Airport and 10 more were expected, including three international flights, said airport spokeswoman Rosemary Barnes.
The "thump" or "boom" of the plane as it lost its tail and bounced on the tarmac was heard for miles around the airport. John Ozols, 54, said he heard the crash in Foster City: "I was lying on my couch and heard the boom. I said 'wow,' what was that?"
Hospitals treated dozens of patients, including some in critical condition. Many had head and shoulder injuries and cuts and bruises. Stanford Hospital officials say they had "several with life-threatening injuries," spine fractures and internal bleeding. Patients arrived by ambulance and U.S. Coast Guard helicopter. Some injuries appeared to come from the pressure of seat belts.
Throughout the day, people throughout the Bay Area were glued to their phones and televisions, stunned by the wreckage and the miracle that so many walked away.
"Having visited the site,'' said San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, "it is incredible we have so many survivors.''
Staff writers Ashly McGlone, Kristin Bender and Dan Nakaso contributed to this report. Contact Julia Prodis Sulek at email@example.com or 408-278-3409.