Rescue officials stand near an Asiana Airlines Boeing 777 plane after it crashed while landing at San Francisco International Airport in California.
SAN FRANCISCO — An Asiana Airlines Boeing 777 with 307 people on board crashed and burst into flames as it landed at San Francisco International Airport on Saturday after a flight from Seoul, killing two people and sending more than 180 to local hospitals.
Witnesses said the tail of the plane appeared to hit the approach area of the runway, which juts out into San Francisco Bay, as it came in for landing. The tail came off and the aircraft left a trail of debris before coming to rest beside the runway.
Pictures taken by survivors immediately after the crash showed passengers emerging from the wrecked plane and hurrying away. Thick smoke then billowed from the wreckage, and TV footage later showed the fuselage of the aircraft gutted and blackened by fire.
There was no immediate indication of the cause of the accident, and federal officials were traveling from Washington to investigate. One survivor said the pilot seemed to be trying to gain height just before crash.
Asiana Airlines said the flight, which had originated in Shanghai, had carried 291 passengers and 16 crew members. Most were Chinese, Korean and U.S. nationals.
Dale Carnes, assistant deputy chief of the San Francisco Fire Department Chief, said two people were killed in the crash, and 49 were transported immediately to area hospitals with serious injuries. Another 132 people were later taken to hospitals with moderate and minor injuries.
Five people were in critical condition at San Francisco General Hospital, according to spokeswoman Rachael Kagan. She said a total of 52 people were treated for burns, fractures and internal injuries.
Three people were in critical condition at Stanford Hospital.
The crash was the first-ever fatal accident involving the Boeing 777, a popular long-range jet that has been in service since 1995. It was the first fatal commercial airline accident in the United States since a regional plane operated by Colgan Air crashed in New York in 2009.
San Francisco International Airport, a major West Coast hub and gateway to Asia, was shut down for several hours after the crash and flights were diverted to Los Angeles, Seattle, Oakland and San Jose. By late afternoon two runways had reopened even as scores of safety workers scoured the airfield for debris.
'TOO LOW AND TOO FAST'
Survivor Benjamin Levy told a local NBC station by phone that he believed the plane had been coming in too low.
"I know the airport pretty well, so I realized the guy was a bit too low, too fast, and somehow he was not going to hit the runway on time, so he was too low ... he put some gas and tried to go up again," he said.
"But it was too late, so we hit the runway pretty bad, and then we started going up in the air again, and then landed again, pretty hard," Levy said.
He said he opened an emergency door and ushered people out. "We got pretty much everyone in the back section of the plane out," he said. "When we got out there was some smoke. There was no fire then, the fire came afterward."
Photos and TV images showed that emergency chutes had been deployed from at least two of the aircraft's exits.
Ying Kong of the Bay Area city of Albany, who was waiting at the airport for her brother-in-law, Fawen Yan, 47, from Richmond, California, said he telephoned her after surviving the crash to say it had been "really smoky and scary."
"He feels it difficult to breathe, but he's okay," she said. She added: "He said a lot of people had to run."
Asiana Airlines said the passengers included 141 Chinese, 77 South Koreans, 61 U.S. citizens and one Japanese citizen. It did not give the nationality of the others.
At an evening media briefing, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee said: "It is incredible and very lucky that we have so many survivors."
The Asiana flight departed from Seoul at 5:04 p.m. Korean time and touched down in San Francisco at 11:28 a.m PDT, according to FlightAware, a website that tracks flights. The flight lasted 10 hours and 24 minutes, it said.
Deborah Hersman, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said the agency was sending a team of investigators to San Francisco and that it is too early to determine the cause of the crash.
"We will be looking at everything," she told reporters at Reagan National Airport in Arlington, Virginia, outside Washington. "Everything is on the table. We have to gather the facts before we reach any conclusions."
The FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said her agency was also sending investigators.
Boeing expressed concern for those on board the flight and added that it will provide technical assistance to the NTSB as it investigates the accident.
A San Francisco airport spokesman said that a component of the facility's instrument landing system that tracks an incoming airplane's glide path has been out of service in recent weeks and was not operational on Saturday.
Pilots and air safety experts said the glide path technology was far from essential for a safe landing in good weather. But Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, a retired pilot and safety consultant who gained fame for landing a plane safely in the Hudson River in 2009, said investigators would certainly be looking into the issue.
"The pilots would have had to rely solely on visual cues to fly the proper glide path to the runway, and not have had available to them the electronic information that they typically have even in good weather at most major airports," he told the local CBS News affiliate.
A British Airways 777-200ER crash-landed a few yards short of a runway at London's Heathrow Airport in 2008. All on board survived. Investigators blamed the crash on fuel blockages caused by ice particles formed during the long flight from Beijing - a finding that led to changes in the design of the Rolls-Royce engines used on some 777s.
The Asiana 777-200ER that crashed in San Francisco on Saturday was powered by engines from Pratt & Whitney, a subsidiary of United Technologies.