In the end, it was an easy exit from the plane. The tail was gone, and the landing gear had been ripped off during the crash.
Wen Zhang, seated near the back of Asiana Airlines flight 214 from Seoul, waited until the plane slid to a stop. Then she gathered up her crying 4-year-old son, picked up her carry-on bag and stepped out into the San Francisco sunshine.
"We just walked out, two rows to the big hole in the plane tail," said Zhang, who spoke to reporters outside a hospital.
Pilot Lee Kang-kook was at the controls of Boeing 777 as it approached San Francisco International Airport at about 11:30 a.m., at the end of a 10-hour flight.
The airport had turned off for the summer a navigation system that would have suggested the best descent, and while the weather was excellent, Lee was in training, making his first flight in a 777 to San Francisco. He had nearly 10,000 flying hours, but only 43 hours on a 777, Asiana said. Next to him was co-pilot Lee Jeong-min, with over 3,000 hours on a 777.
There was no word of warning from the cockpit during the approach, but several passengers said they sensed the plane was coming in too low. While the cabin began to hum with a murmur of pleasant anticipation prior to landing, Eugene Rah began to brace for disaster.
"I knew the plane was flying too low," Rah told NBC's "Today" show. The plane was approaching over San Francisco Bay, and Rah said the water was too close. "I was really prepared, and I thought, 'we're going to have a big crash.' And bang, that's what happened."
The crew did not ask the control tower for help, National Transportation Safety Board Chair Deborah Hersman told a news conference, describing flight data and cockpit voice recordings from the plane and control tower recordings.
The plane was coming in significantly slower than the target 137 knots, and seven seconds before impact, one of the flight crew called for a burst of speed. Three seconds later, the plane's control stick began to shake in a warning that a stall was near. The throttles revved, and the Pratt & Whitney engines responded immediately, the recorders show.
One and a half seconds out, one of the crew suggested to the others to abort the landing, to make a "go around" and try again. It was too late. The plane hit tail first, passengers said. "The aircraft hit the sea wall," Hersman said.
SKIPPING ALONG THE RUNWAY
The scream of the revving engines was clear to passenger Benjamin Levy, who said he realized the plane was in trouble. After the hit, it felt like the plane was responding to a burst of power and climbing.
"We're going back up and I'm thinking maybe we're taking off again. We didn't and we went back pretty hard and bounced," Levy told reporters from a San Francisco hospital. "It's like a Six Flags show," he said, referring to a theme park. "We were skipping on the runway."
"It was boom! The back end just hits and flies up into the air and everybody's head goes up to the ceiling. And then it just kind of drifts for a little bit, probably a good 300 yards, and then it tips over," passenger Elliott Stone told CNN.
The plane nearly cartwheeled in the air, coming to rest in a burst of red smoke, witnesses said. All of a sudden about 300 people rushed for the exits.
"It was disbelief, screaming. It went really, really fast," Levy said. Passengers threw open emergency exits.
Many of the emergency evacuation slides were gone, but so were the wheels, so it was only a meter's hop to the ground, said Chinese tourist Fei Xiong, outside a hospital and wearing a neck brace.
Some passengers grabbed their carry-on bags, she told reporters. Passengers describe smoke filling the cabin, but "the fire started after everyone got out," she said.
Firefighters arrived three minutes after impact. "They pulled up and ran onto the plane, and they unbuckled and pulled out at least seven people," said Thomas O'Connor, president of the San Francisco Fire Fighters union.
Stone, who had been sitting in the middle of the plane, escaped from the wreckage and waited nearby for help.
"Twenty minutes later, this lady just appears from like 500 yards away, just like crippled, just walking," Stone said. "We start running over and there's like another five bodies out like 500 yards away that nobody saw."
Stone surmised that they might have been flight attendants who fell out when the plane's tail broke off on impact.
San Francisco General Hospital Chief of Surgery Margaret Knudson said at least two patients suffered "severe road rash, suggesting they were dragged," although she was unsure of what happened.
Quick triage to sort the critically injured from the "walking wounded" saved at least two lives, said Knudson, who received three waves of patients. Some passengers had major abdominal injuries, others head trauma, and some were paralyzed with broken spines.
The fire engulfed the plane, charring the interior and eating through the roof, exposing almost the entire cabin to the sky.