SAN FRANCISCO -- An Asiana Airlines jetliner crash-landed at San Francisco International Airport on Saturday, killing two and injuring more than 180, as screaming passengers slid down rescue chutes before flames filled the cabin.
Dozens of survivors were taken to local hospitals. Passengers said despite the chaos, most aboard Flight 214, which originated in Shanghai with a stop in Seoul, South Korea, seemed able to exit quickly and walk from the wreckage without help.
The cause was unclear, but federal investigators were looking into whether the plane clipped a seawall separating the runway from San Francisco Bay, according to a source involved in the investigation. Officials said there was no indication terrorism was involved.
"We were too low, too soon," said passenger Benjamin Levy, who described looking out his window, seeing piers in the bay, and thinking they were closer to the plane that they should have been.
The pilot of the Boeing 777 seemed to push on the engines "just as we were about to hit the water," Levy said. "The pilot must have realized (and) tried to pull the plane back up. We hit pretty hard. I thought the wheels were gone for sure."
Levy, a 39-year-old San Francisco technology executive who had travelled to Asia on a business trip, heard screams as the plane, carrying 291 passengers and 16 crew members, slammed into the ground.
When emergency crews arrived, the white, wide-bodied jet was emitting black-and-white smoke as it sat in a stretch of brown grass near the tarmac. The tail was gone and pieces of the plane littered the runway. Flames had burned a gaping hole through the top of the plane.
Multiple sources said there was no reported trouble or declared emergency on the plane before it landed.
'We were too low, too soon. First of all, you don't believe it's happening. When the plane stopped, I realized I was going to be OK'
Asked at a news conference if pilot error was a factor, Deborah Hersman, chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said "everything's on table at this point. We have to gather all the facts before we reach any conclusions." Hersman said a team of NTSB investigators headed to San Francisco.
San Francisco fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White confirmed two fatalities in the crash.
Hayes-White said when her crews arrived, emergency chutes had already been deployed "and we were observing multiple people coming down the chutes and walking to safety, which was a good thing." San Mateo County firefighters performed search-and-rescue operations inside the aircraft, she added.
Among the 307 on board, authorities said 182 people were transported to hospitals, including 49 in serious condition. Among the passengers were 77 Korean citizens, 141 Chinese, 61 Americans and one Japanese, according to South Korea-based Asiana.
Flight 214, like all aircraft landing in San Francisco on the sunny clear morning, was using visual flight rules, an airport spokesman said. FBI Special Agent in Charge David Johnson said command of the incident was transferred to his agency Saturday and the FBI would be working closely with the NTSB to determine the cause.
Moments after the crash, a United Airlines pilot in another plane announced welcome news to the airport control tower: There were survivors.
"We see people," the pilot told air-traffic controllers, in a recorded conversation with the tower. "They need attention. They are alive and walking around."
"We can see about two or three people that are moving and... survived," a second unidentified pilot said.
Their radio dispatches came as controllers rushed fire trucks and ambulances towards the stricken plane.
"We have emergency vehicles responding," a controller told the Asiana cockpit. "We have everyone on their way."
Passenger Jang Hyung Lee, 32, of Emeryville, Calif., said there was no announcement from the pilot or crew, but he knew what was happening.
Belongings began to tumble from seats and storage bins and he felt gravity pushing him to the left-hand side of the plane as the right side tilted upward.
He clutched his 16-month-old son to his chest and braced for impact.
The engines revved one last time, he said, then the plane hit the ground.
Lee felt two bumps -- one less violent, the next much harder -- as the plane hit the ground. Smoke began to fill the cabin. He saw flames coming from the right-hand side of the plane, small at first, then bigger.
From impact to full stop, the crash lasted 30 terrifying seconds.
Lee and his wife, with their son, flung themselves onto an evacuation chute and ran off the grass and onto the tarmac, away from the burning plane.
Levy, the San Francisco tech executive, was sitting in seat 30K, which he said was "right behind the wing on the right-hand side."
As the plane crashed, he said everything turned into slow motion.
"First of all, you don't believe it's happening," Levy said. "When the plane stopped, I realized I was going to be OK."
Levy said that as smoke billowed and screams filled the cabin, he worked to help open an emergency door and get passengers off the plane. He said most passengers "managed to get out very quickly," and that he stepped on debris as he eventually made it to the ground and fled.
He ended up hospitalized with a painful rib injury.
San Francisco General Hospital treated 52 crash victims Saturday, including 10 who arrived in critical condition. Five of those were upgraded Saturday night to serious condition, said Rachael Kagan, a hospital spokeswoman.
The hospital set up tents outside the emergency room to accommodate additional patients from the crash who didn't require trauma care, said Rachael Kagan, a spokeswoman for the hospital.
"We have seen a variety of injuries you would associate with a crash or fire," Kagan said, including burns, fractures, and internal injuries. Some patients needed to go immediately into operating rooms.
The Boeing 777 is a twin-engine jetliner and one of the world's most popular long-distance planes, often used for flights of at least a dozen hours, ferrying passengers from one continent to another.
The most notable accident involving a 777 happened in January 2008 at London's Heathrow Airport, when a British Airways jet made a hard landing about 1,000 feet short of the runway, breaking the landing gear. There were at least dozens of injuries, but no fatalities.
-- The Los Angeles Times