Crash Survivor Clutching Toddler Sensed Danger in DescentMark Chediak and Michael B. Marois
Jang Hyung Lee clutched his 16-month-old son on his lap as Asiana Airlines Inc. Flight 214 neared San Francisco International Airport, sensing that their descent was going wrong.
“The approach looked awkward,” Lee, 32, said yesterday in an interview at the airport after he and his family survived the accident that left Seoul-based Asiana’s twin-engine Boeing Co. 777 broken and charred. “I squeezed him hard. I didn’t want to lose him.”
Lee’s account gave a glimpse into the final moments of Flight 214, which appears to have struck a seawall where the runway meets San Francisco Bay. The impact broke off the jet’s tail and sent the aircraft spinning out of control onto the airport grass before bursting into flames. Two of the 307 people on board were killed and dozens more injured.
There was no announcement made about a crash landing, and the engines revved as the 777 was about to hit the runway, as if trying to gain last-minute airspeed, said Lee, an architectural designer from Emeryville, California, who was returning from a family trip to South Korea with his wife, son and in-laws.
Then he felt a soft blow followed by a “pretty big hit” and then the plane caught fire. “We got out really fast,” he said. “We pretty much ran away from the plane because it was on fire.”
A gaping hole was burned into the top of the aircraft. Lee and others on board escaped down emergency slides, and he, his wife and their child weren’t hurt. His in-laws were taken to a hospital for treatment and later released.
“It was really scary,” Lee’s wife, Jennifer, said in an interview with their son secured in a pouch-style child carrier supported by shoulder straps.
Flight 214 from Seoul had been airborne for about 10 hours, 23 minutes, according to industry data compiler FlightAware.com, following a course that took it across the North Pacific and then toward what should have been a routine touchdown on San Francisco International Airport’s Runway 28 Left.
Instead, the trip ended with the worst aviation accident on U.S. soil since February 2009. Families and friends yearned for news for hours as authorities confronted injuries, a language barrier with passengers who didn’t speak English, and confusion that at one point prompted an ultimately unfounded declaration that about 60 people remained unaccounted for.
Lee Choon Hee, 47, yesterday was waiting outside Asiana headquarters in Seoul for more information about her daughter, Lee Ji Eun, and niece, Kim Ye Lim, both 22. Lee had heard from a flight attendant that both had been taken to a hospital.
At San Francisco International, Flight 214 passenger Vedpa Singh was greeted by a crush of reporters as he walked through the terminal, his arm in a sling. He said he was on board with his wife and 15-year-old son. “I’m just trying to find my wife,” he said.
“Everybody screamed,” he said. “It felt like it all happened in less than 10 seconds.”