SAN FRANCISCO -- There was enough confusion in the cockpit of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 that the control tower reported the 777 jetliner had crash-landed at San Francisco International Airport before the pilots did, the National Transportation Safety Board said while announcing that its on-site investigation of the deadly disaster was winding down.

At a Thursday news conference, NTSB chairwoman Deborah Hersman said the last contact between air-traffic control and ill-fated plane was 90 seconds before it crashed Saturday morning, and that the controllers called for rescue teams ahead of the flight crew.

Investigators look over the debris field left by the Asiana Airlines jet that crashed Saturday at San Francisco International Airport on July 9, 2013.
Investigators look over the debris field left by the Asiana Airlines jet that crashed Saturday at San Francisco International Airport on July 9, 2013. (National Transportation Safety Board)

It was among a smattering of details released in the last of a revelatory series of agency press briefings, signaling a significant draw-down of investigators who will be returning to Washington, D.C. Hersman said while crash investigations typically take between 12 and 18 months, her agency will aim to complete their work within a year.

"This is a significant event. There's a lot of interest in it. It's going to be a high priority for our agency," Hersman said. "We have put out a great deal of information, but this is just the tip of the iceberg."

Other revealed details included:

  • Automated features such as auto-throttle, auto-pilot and flight director were all functioning, and controls were responsive.

  • Only nine seconds before impact did a flight crewman comment about the plane's slow landing speed.

  • All of the passenger seats, nearly 300 in all, remained in the aircraft during the crash, as three flight attendants were ejected while strapped into their seats.

  • In the immediate aftermath of the crash, the front section of the plane was pristine, but photos taken after a fire took hold showed that passengers swift exit saved their lives.

  • The fuel tanks were not breached, and jet fuel did not feed the fire, and landing gear detached as designed.

  • Federal Aviation Administration inspectors found no signs of poor maintenance or performance prior to the crash for Asiana Airlines, characterizing it as "a quiet operator with no significant issues."

  • Personal technology such as cell phones did not interfere with the aircraft.

    In the coming days, the scarred runway will begin to resemble its former self, as the shell-shocked passengers continued healing from their own scars, in part by taking another look at the fallen aircraft that inexorably changed their lives.

    After nightfall on Thursday, an enormous crane could be seen at the crash site removing large portions of the 777 fuselage. SFO officials did not know when the cleanup would be completed, nor did they have an estimated reopening date for the runway.

    The NTSB turned over custody of Runway 28L the night before so that airport crews can start clearing debris and begin repairs to the surface and seawall where the plane's tail sheared off, and crews were quick to begin work.

    Earlier Thursday, officials said that federal authorities will transport, piece by piece, the wreckage to a secure housing area that is yet to be determined. Parts of investigatory "interest" have either already been shipped or are on their way to the agency's headquarters in Washington.

    "We're still working on the plane and the plane is in the infield," Hersman said Thursday morning. "We're going to continue with our documentation of the plane and once we complete that we'll have to remove the 777 off the airport property piece by piece. It's a very large structure and it will take some time."

    She added: "It's up to the airport to decide once the salvage operation is complete if repairs to the pavement and the safety lighting are made and if that runway is safe to open."

    Hersman also said that overnight investigators talked again with the plane's "flying pilot" -- who was seated in the left-hand seat and was making his first landing at SFO in a Boeing 777 -- after he told South Korean authorities that he was hit with a "flash of light temporarily at 500 feet (elevation) that blinded him."

    The chairwoman said "it was not a laser" and that the pilot "could see still," suggesting that it did not bother his vision enough to have affected his flying. The other two pilots did not report seeing the flash.

    A trio of private buses accompanied by police escort arrived at the crash site at SFO around 7 p.m. Wednesday. About 40 to 50 crash survivors and family members observed the scene from an outlying road while a line of a dozen dark-clad figures stood off to one side, casting long shadows down the roadway in the setting sun. They asked the NTSB and relevant authorities for the opportunity, Hersman said.

    "Sometimes in accidents people want to do a site visit and they want to go out and see either the location," she said. "Nothing can bring them closure because this is a very significant event, a very tragic event for them, certainly those who lost a loved one. We do want to be able to provide them what they need to continue with their grieving process."

    Also on Wednesday night, frantic 911 calls made Saturday morning by crash survivors were released by the California Highway Patrol, which is the region's clearinghouse for emergency calls made via cell phone.

    One is from a woman trying to tend to a female victim who she says appears to be in her mid 20s. They are not with the broken fuselage of the Boeing 777, but farther down the tarmac closer to where the plane initially hit the ground.

    "There is a woman out here on the ... runway who is pretty much burned very severely on the head, and we don't know what to do. ... She is severely burned, and she will probably die soon if we don't get any help."

    Other calls voiced exasperation with what they considered a lengthy ambulance response. Authorities said ambulances were initially held at bay partly out of fears that the aircraft might explode. Hersman said those recordings will be analyzed.

    There was confusion among the three pilots in the cockpit about how fast the Boeing 777 was traveling during its landing approach. It was only seconds before the crash that the two main pilots -- a "flying pilot" and his instructor -- realized they were going far too slowly, bringing the plane to a near stall, and so low that they needed to try the landing again. It was too late.

    The Thursday press conference did reveal that there actually two calls by different pilots for a "go around," after previous NTSB accounts only reported one. They were at three and 1.5 seconds before impact, respectively.

    After the tail broke off on the sea wall, jettisoning two 16-year-old girls on a trip from China as well as three flight attendants who were strapped into their seats, the plane went into a counter-clockwise 360-degree spin before stopping and catching fire.

    The so-called "short landing" is rare: According to an examination by this newspaper of Federal Aviation Administration data going back to 1973, only 20 short landings have been recorded. All but one of them was blamed on pilot error. Based on this data, the chances of being on a commercial airliner in which somebody dies in a short-landing in the U.S. were more than 400 million to 1.

    In the confusion after the crash, the flight crew initially held off on an evacuation order of the plane and the decision was essentially made for them once fire started to overtake the cabin.

    None of the pilots were screened for drugs or alcohol, which, while standard for U.S. pilots involved in a crash, is not required in South Korea, where Asiana Airlines is based. Authorities defer to the home country's policies. Hersman was vague about whether recommending a uniform policy should be something borne out of the investigation.

    "There's certainly a complex international framework and structure," Hersman said Thursday. "We need to understand what the company policies are, what the country's policies are and how the FAA requires operators that come into the U.S. to comply with different safety rules."

    The two teen girls were the lone fatalities of the crash that injured dozens more, many critically.

    As of Thursday, 11 people remain at Bay Area hospitals: Seven are at San Francisco General Hospital, including three in critical condition, one of them a child. Two are at Stanford Hospital, including one that was upgraded overnight from critical to stable condition, and one each at Saint Mary's Medical Center and Saint Francis Hospital. Among them are the three flight attendants who were also ejected from the plane but miraculously survived. The NTSB said one of the three other injured flight attendants was released Wednesday night.

    The San Mateo County Coroner's Office identified the Chinese teenager who may have been struck by a rescue vehicle racing to the crash site of Ye Mengyuan. Whether that possible collision happened before or after she died remains under investigation by both federal and local authorities.

    Thursday night in Los Angeles, West Valley Christian School held a vigil to honor the victims of the crash.

    The 16-year-old girls killed were among about 35 students who were scheduled to attend a 3-week academic summer camp based at the West Hills school. The camp, which was scheduled to start last Monday, was cancelled in light of the crash.

    The ceremony included speeches and songs, while wreaths were laid out and students wrote condolences on large banners.

    "Our general purpose is to show love and compassion for the Chinese group that came, even though they never came to us and the two that died, to show the human side of Americans as we relate to the Chinese people -- that we truly have a love and compassion for those families, the children that were in the plane crash and those that died," said West Vally Christian Church's Rev. Glenn Kirby by telephone from a national church conference in Kentucky.

    Staff writers David DeBolt, Natalie Neysa Alund, Eric Kurhi, Katie Nelson, and the Los Angeles News Group contributed to this report. Contact Robert Salonga at 408-920-5002. Follow him at Twitter.com/robertsalonga.