SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - An Asiana Airlines flight packed with more than 300 people slammed into the runway while landing at San Francisco airport Saturday and caught fire, forcing many to escape by sliding down the emergency inflatable slides as flames tore through the plane.
At least two people died in the crash, while another 181 people were taken to hospitals, most with minor injuries, authorities said. Five people, including one child, remained in critical condition at San Francisco General Hospital, the region's main trauma center.
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.
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, 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.
Among those on board was David Eun, a former Virginia Beach resident and graduate of Cox High School. On Saturday, he sent messages out on Twitter, saying he was okay and was not injured in the crash.
"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, said 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.
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.
Belding was out jogging just before 11:30 a.m. on a path across the water from the airport when she noticed the plane approaching the runway in a way that "just didn't look like it was coming in quite right."
"Then all of a sudden I saw what looked like a cloud of dirt puffing up and then there was a big bang and it kind of looked like the plane maybe bounced (as it neared the ground)," she said. "I couldn't really tell what happened, but you saw the wings going up and (in) a weird angle."
"Not like it was cartwheeling," she said, but rather as though the wings were almost swaying from side to side.
The flight originated in Shanghai, China, and stopped over in Seoul, South Korea, before coming to San Francisco, airport officials said. The airline said there were 16 crew members aboard, and the 291 passengers included 77 South Koreans, 141 Chinese, 61 Americans and one Japanese citizen. The nationalities of the remaining passengers weren't immediately known.
Airport spokesman Doug Yakel said 49 people were in serious condition and 132 had less significant injuries.
The airport closed for several hours, and when it reopened, two of the four runways were operating.
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