Boeing 777 crashes at San Francisco International Airport - KiiiTV.com South Texas, Corpus Christi, Coastal Bend

Flight data recorders recovered from Asiana crash

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Highlights
  • Asiana Airlines Flight 214 data recorders were recovered and sent to Washington
  • Boeing 777 crashed Saturday at San Francisco airport, killing two teen passengers
  • NTSB: "Stabilized approaches have long been a safety concern"

By Thom Patterson

Survivors of the San Francisco plane crash were being treated Sunday for injuries ranging from paralysis to "severe road rash."

But they're alive.

In all, 182 people were hospitalized and 123 others walked away from Saturday's crash landing of a Boeing 777. The number who emerged unscathed prompted the city's fire chief to describe it as "nothing short of a miracle."

A day after Asiana Airlines Flight 214 slammed onto the edge of a runway, severing its tail, spun across the airport and caught fire, the death toll has remained unchanged. Two 16-year-old girls died in the crash.

"We were expecting a lot of burns," said Dr. Margaret Knudson, San Francisco General Hospital's chief of surgery. "But we didn't see them."

At San Francisco General, 19 survivors remained hospitalized, six of them in critical condition.

Many of the injured said they were sitting toward the rear of the aircraft, said Knudson. Several suffered abdominal injuries and spine fractures, some of which include paralysis and head trauma, Knudson said. Many patients also were treated for "severe road rash," she said, which suggests "that they were dragged."

The conditions of victims at other hospitals was unclear Sunday.

In Washington, investigators were examining both flight data recorders, which could reveal clues to what caused the crash landing.

Survivors and witnesses reported the 7-year-old airliner appeared to be flying too low as it approached the end of a runway near the bay.

"Stabilized approaches have long been a safety concern for the aviation community," National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman told CNN on Sunday, saying they represent a significant threat. "We see a lot of runway crashes."

"We want to understand what was going on with this crew so we can learn from it," Hersman said.

Hersman said her team hopes to interview the pilots in the coming days.

Internal damage to the plane is "really striking," she said, and officials are thankful there weren't more deaths.

Nothing, including pilot error, has been ruled out as a possible cause of the crash, investigators said. The recorders have already arrived at an NTSB lab in Washington for analysis.

Teen girls Ye Mengyuan and Wang Linjia, both Chinese nationals, were killed in the crash, Asiana Airlines said Sunday. There were 291 passengers and 16 crew members aboard the two-engine jet, which had flown 10 hours from Seoul, South Korea.

"The tail of the Asiana flight hit the runway and the aircraft veered to the left out of the runway," said Choi Jeong-ho, head of South Korea's Aviation Policy Bureau.

Airport technology called the Instrument Landing System, or ILS -- which normally would help pilots correctly approach the runway -- was not operating at the time, according to a Federal Aviation Administration bulletin.

"There are a lot of systems that help support pilots" as they fly into busy airports, Hersman said. Some of these systems alert the pilots. "A lot of this is not necessarily about the plane telling them" that something may be wrong, she said. "It's also about the pilot's recognition of the circumstances and what's going on. So for them to be able to assess what's happening and make the right inputs to make sure they're in a safe situation -- that's what we expect from pilots."

The ILS integrates with the aircraft's cockpit to trigger a audible warning, consultant and retired 777 pilot Mark Weiss told CNN. "You hear a mechanical voice that says, 'too low, too low, too low.'" The ILS is "nice to have," Weiss said, "but it's not critical on the 777." There are redundant systems aboard the aircraft that would provide similar warnings if the plane was coming in too low, said Weiss, who has landed 777s hundreds of times.

Weiss said he's perplexed by the details surrounding the crash landing. If the pilot was somehow unaware the plane was coming in too low, Weiss wonders why another member of the flight crew didn't speak up and warn him.

The pilot operating the aircraft was a veteran who had been flying for Asiana since 1996, the airline said. Evidence in the investigation will include data that show what action the pilots took during the approach to the airport.

More clues could be revealed in the next six to eight hours, former managing director of the NTSB Peter Goelz told CNN's Candy Crowley on Sunday. That's how long Goelz expects it will take analysts "to get a good picture" from data inside the flight recorders. "It will be a fairly quick process," Goelz said. "If the plane was coming in too low or too fast -- at the wrong angle ... by the end of the day the National Transportation Safety Board will have a fairly good idea what happened."

For investigators in the field, he said, it's important to interview the pilots "as soon as possible."

"But in an international investigation, it's somewhat of a more sensitive issue," Goetz acknowledged.

Although temperatures were mild on the runway Saturday, a London crash landing of a British Airways 777 in 2008 raised suspicions about ice contributing to the San Francisco tragedy.

Investigators believe the UK incident was caused by ice forming in the fuel system as the plane flew through cold air over Siberia en route to the UK. Seventeen people were hurt in that crash.

"Even if the landing temperature was 65 degrees (Saturday), if they were at 10,000 feet shortly before, it potentially could have been a problem," said Weiss. "But not necessarily. It's something they want to take a look at."

Hayes-White said Saturday that when crews arrived, "some of the passengers (were) coming out of the water. But the plane was certainly not in the water."

Survivors reported hearing no warning from the cockpit before the landing.

Passengers scrambled to exit a crash scene that one survivor described as "surreal."

On the runway, medics found the bodies of the two Chinese teens lying next to burning wreckage. Remarkably, the other 305 people on the plane survived. Passengers included 70 Chinese students and teachers who were headed to summer camp in the United States, China's state-run Xinhua news agency reported.

When rescuers arrived, they found some passengers coming out of the water, said city fire chief Joanne Hayes-White.

"There was a fire on the plane, so the assumption might be that they went near the water's edge, which is very shallow, to maybe douse themselves with water," she said.

Some jumped out or slid down emergency chutes with luggage in hand.

South Korean investigators will work alongside U.S. investigators. Choi said it could take up to two years to learn exactly what caused the crash. Asiana CEO and President Yoon Young-doo said there was no engine failure, to his knowledge. "The company will conduct an accurate analysis on the cause of this accident and take strong countermeasures for safe operation in the future with the lesson learned from this accident," Yoon said.

Statistically, 2012 was the safest year in terms of aviation accidents worldwide since 1945, according to the Aviation Safety Network.

Data show that there were 23 fatal airliner accidents, which caused 511 deaths, according to ASN stats. That's well below the 10-year annual average of 34 accidents and 773 fatalities.

Survival rates have improved due to better staff training and safety advances during the 1980s and 1990s, according to the group.

CNN's Faith Karimi and Aaron Cooper contributed to this report.

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