SAN FRANCISCO -- The flight attendants of Asiana Flight 214 reluctantly took center stage Wednesday, appearing in public for the first time, while the head of the NTSB at a separate event detailed the vital role many of them played in the critical moments following Saturday's crash at San Francisco International Airport.
After the pilot ordered passengers to stay in their seats, one attendant spotted flames outside a window and sent word to the cockpit, triggering a mass evacuation 90 seconds after the plane came to a stop. Some attendants helped passengers flee while others grabbed fire extinguishers to fight flames that broke out inside the cabin after most of the passengers had escaped.
Later, they learned that three of their fellow flight attendants in the back of the Boeing 777 had been ejected -- along with their seats -- when the tail of the plane snapped off on impact. Those three attendants and three others were hospitalized after the crash.
The six flight attendants who have been interviewed by investigators so far "all shared a similar experience of an initial impact followed by a secondary impact" that triggered two emergency slides to inflate inside the cabin, pinning two flight attendants, said Deborah Hersman, chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board.
As Hersman detailed the efforts of the flight crew, six of the plane's 12 flight attendants arrived under police escort and held a simultaneous and chaotic press conference at SFO, where they posed for pictures. Some did not open their eyes and some wept.
One appeared in a wheelchair, with an injured leg, and tried to cover her face from a fusillade of camera flashes. She and four others were ushered to a back hallway as the cabin manager, Lee Yoon Hye, briefly offered prayers to the wounded and their families.
"We're working as quickly as we can," she said through a translator.
In addition to Lee, the flight attendants were identified as purser Yoo Tae Sik; assistant purser Lee Jin Hee; and flight attendants Kim Ji Youn, Han Woo lee and Kim Yun Ju. "This was a very emotional event," said a translator, who refused to give her name.
Two 16-year-old girls were killed in the crash, and investigators are still trying to determine if one was hit by an emergency vehicle. On Tuesday night, the San Mateo County Coroner said it was teenager Ye Mengyuan who may have been hit.
At her daily press briefing, Hersman provided other details of the investigation so far:
"There's still a lot of work ahead before the runway will be reopened," Hersman said.
He told investigators that he had gotten eight hours of sleep the night before the flight and showed up early at the airport because "he wanted to make sure he was prepared as he was going to be working with this instructor-pilot for the first time."
The "instructor pilot" -- who was sitting in the right-hand seat and was making his first flight as an instructor -- "is the pilot in command," Hersman said. But investigators want to know whether he showed "deference" to the pilot making his inaugural landing in a Boeing 777.
He told investigators that he had received eight hours of sleep the night before the flight and spent the day relaxing with his family before he showed up at the airport.
But it was the actions of the flight attendants that took up much of Hersman's briefing.
After the plane crashed and went into a 360-degree spin on Runway 28L, Lee Yoon Hye directed the flight attendant sitting next to her to ask the pilots what to do.
"They were told not to initiate an evacuation" because the pilots were in contact with tower control about the emergency, Hersman said. "They really don't have a good sense what's going on behind them. ... Hindsight is 20-20."
But another flight attendant saw flames outside a window near Row 10 and sent another flight attendant back into the cockpit to tell the pilots "there was a fire and they needed to evacuate."
Contact Dan Nakaso at 408-271-3648. Follow him at Twitter.com/dannakaso.