SAN FRANCISCO — One of two teenage girls killed in an Asiana jet crash at San Francisco International Airport might have been struck by an emergency vehicle responding to Saturday’s crash that also injured more than 180 people, fire officials said Monday.
Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White and Assistant Deputy Chief Dale Carnes both raised the possibility at a news conference with first responders.
“There was a possibility one of two fatalities might have been contacted by one of our apparatus at one point during the incident,” Carnes said.
San Mateo County Coroner Robert Foucrault earlier said his office was conducting an autopsy to determine whether one of the victims survived the crash but was run over and killed by a responding vehicle. He said his staff was notified of the possibility by senior San Francisco Fire Department officials at the crash site on Saturday.
Remarkably, 305 of 307 passengers and crew survived the crash and more than a third didn’t even require hospitalization. Only a small number were critically injured.
Investigators said Asiana Airlines Flight 214 was traveling “significantly below” the target speed during its approach and that the crew tried to abort the landing just before it smashed onto the runway. What they don’t yet know is whether the pilot’s inexperience with the Boeing 777 and at San Francisco’s airport played a role. Officials said the probe will also focus on whether the airport or plane’s equipment could have malfunctioned.
The South Korea government said officials will inspect engines and landing equipment on all Boeing 777 planes owned by Asiana and Korean Air, the national carrier.
Investigators said the weather was unusually fair for foggy San Francisco. The winds were mild, too. During the descent, with their throttles set to idle, the pilots never discussed having any problems with the plane or its positioning until it was too late.
Firefighters said they encountered smoke, leaking jet fuel and passengers coming down on chutes when they arrived. Lt. Christine Emmons said Monday at the news conference that she and her partner ran up a chute into the plane and found four passengers trapped in the back. The conditions in the plane were changing rapidly, with the fire coming down on rescuers and the smoke thickening as the trapped passengers were pulled out to safety, she said.
Seven seconds before the Boeing 777 struck down, a member of the flight crew made a call to increase the jet’s lagging speed, National Transportation Safety Board chief Deborah Hersman said at a briefing based on the plane’s cockpit and flight data recorders. Three seconds later came a warning that the plane was about to stall. Just 2 1/2 seconds later, the crew tried to abort the landing and go back up for another try. The air traffic controller guiding the plane heard the crash that followed almost instantly, Hersman said.
While investigators from both the U.S. and South Korea are in the early stages of an investigation that will include a weekslong examination of the wreckage and alcohol tests for the crew, the news confirmed what survivors and other witnesses had reported: a slow-moving airliner flying low to the ground.
“We are not talking about a few knots” difference between the aircraft’s target landing speed of 137 knots, or 157 mph, and how fast it was going as it came in for a landing, Hersman said.
Pilots normally try to land at the target speed, in this case 137 knots, plus an additional 5 more knots, said Bob Coffman, an American Airlines captain who has flown 777s. He said the briefing raises an important question: “Why was the plane going so slow?”
The airline said Monday in Seoul that the pilot at the controls had little experience flying that type of plane and was landing one for the first time at that airport.
Asiana spokeswoman Lee Hyomin said that Lee Gang-guk, who was at the controls, had nearly 10,000 hours flying other planes but only 43 in the 777, a plane she said he still was getting used to flying. Another pilot on the flight, Lee Jeong-min, had about 12,390 hours of flying experience, including 3,220 hours on the 777, according to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport in South Korea. Lee was the deputy pilot, tasked with helping Lee Gang-guk get accustomed to the 777, according to Asiana Airlines.
Two other pilots were aboard, with teams rotating at the controls.
The plane’s Pratt & Whitney engines were on idle and the pilots were flying under visual flight rules, Hersman said. Under visual flight procedures in the Boeing 777, a wide-body jet, the autopilot would typically have been turned off while the automatic throttle, which regulates speed, would have been on until the plane had descended to 500 feet (150 meters) in altitude, Coffman said. At that point, pilots would normally check their airspeed before switching off the autothrottle to continue a “hand fly” approach, he said.
There was no indication in the discussions between the pilots and the air traffic controllers that there were problems with the aircraft.