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'Surreal' escape: How survivors fled badly damaged Asiana Flight 214

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Editor's note: A correction has been made to this story.

After the crash landing, Benjamin Levy heard screams. His fellow passengers had broken bones, cuts, burns, bruises. The man in the seat next to him took a bad blow to the head.

For a few moments, confusion filled the cabin of Asiana Airways Flight 214. 

"It was surreal," Levy told NBC Bay Area, shortly after being taken by ambulance from San Francisco International Airport.  "A lot of people screaming and not really believing what was happening to them. I wasn’t believing it either."

Read more on NBC Bay Area: Flight 214 survivor describes normal flight that went suddenly wrong

Two passengers were killed when the plane, a Boeing 777 flying from South Korea, came in at an awkward angle, clipped its tail, careened from the edge of San Francisco Bay down the runway and caught fire, according to witnesses and NBC News sources. The victims were identified as two Chinese 16-year-old girls, Ye Mengyuan and Wang Linjia, according to the airline.

"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," Levy 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."

Once the plane had skidded to a halt, “I kind of stood up and went and opened the door,”  Levy said. “A piece of the wing was gone. So there was a lot of debris. But I realized we were on the ground.”

Levy started to help other passengers off the plane, trying to keep them calm and telling them not to worry about their bags. The scene in the cabin was chaotic, but not panicked. People were pushing each other out of the plane, he said.

Levy helped who he could, then tried to go to the back section to help a few more, but someone grabbed him and pushed him out, he said.

Other passengers slid down the inflatable emergency chutes, some running when they touched the ground and others walking away. One man told a relative later that there was so much smoke it was hard to breathe.

Eyewitness of the Asiana Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash describes the dramatic scene as the aircraft came in for a landing.

Within minutes, almost everyone was off Flight 214 — most of them injured but alive.

Levy’s account of  Saturday’s frightening and deadly crash landing was among the first to be made public.

Eugene Rah, who was on the flight, told the TODAY show on Sunday that he looked out the window as the plane descended and “knew something was going wrong.”

“I knew the plane was flying too low,” Rah said. “And I was really prepared, and I thought, we’re going to have a big crash. And bang, that’s what happened.”

Rah said he was not sure how long the chaos of the crash itself lasted, but afterward all he heard was silence. Then the pilot asked people to evacuate the mangled plane, he said.

Fellow passenger Vedpal Singh, who was sitting in the middle of the aircraft with his family, told The Associated Press that there was no warning before the plane landed hard.  Then he heard a loud sound. 

"We knew something was horrible wrong," he said.  "It's miraculous we survived."

Singh, who suffered a fractured collarbone and had his arm was in a sling, told the AP the plane went silent just before people tried to get out anyway they could. His 15-year-old son said luggage tumbled from the overhead bins.

Among those who made it to safety were 34 Chinese high school students and a teacher, on their way to summer camp in the United States, according to Chinese state television. The plane had originated in Shanghai. Only the teacher had an injury, and it was light.

The crash happened just before 11:30 a.m. local time, after a flight of more than 10 hours across the Pacific Ocean from Seoul.


Better shot. 300mm from the bayshore. by @radicaldudejom

Airport officials said it appeared to be a tragic accident, and federal investigators said it was too early to determine the cause.

When the plane came to rest in a field, it left a trail of debris and pieces of the sheared-off tail scattered on the runway. The fire charred the cabin and burned off much of the top of the fuselage.

“This could have been much worse,” said Edwin Lee, the San Francisco mayor.

San Francisco Fire Chief  Joanne Hayes-White said that firefighters arriving at the scene found people in the shallow water of the bay beside the tarmac, presumably dousing  themselves after the fire on the plane.

The two deaths were the first in a jumbo jet crash in the United States since November 2001, when a plane went down in a New York neighborhood. They were the first U.S. fatalities for a large airline since the crash of a regional turboprop killed 50 people in February 2009.

In all, there were 307 people on board the Asiana flight, 291 passengers and 16 crew. Authorities said 182 people were hospitalized, including 49 with serious injuries. Hospitals reported that the injuries included burns, fractures and cuts.

Josh Edelson / AFP - Getty Images

A Boeing 777 operated by Asiana Airlines crash landed at San Francisco International Airport.

The bodies of the two dead were found on the runway, Hayes-White said. South Korea's transport ministry said those who died were Chinese citizens.

Besides the 61 Americans, authorities said the jet was carrying 77 Koreans, 141 Chinese, three passengers from India, one each from Japan and Vietnam and seven whose nationalities were unknown.

David Eun, an executive with Samsung Electronics who was on the flight, posted to his Twitter account: “I just crash landed at SFO. Tail ripped off. Most everyone seems fine. I’m ok.”

He also posted a photo that showed people walking or running away from the downed plane, including at least a half-dozen who appeared to have slid down an emergency chute.

San Francisco International suspended all takeoffs and landings for four hours after the crash and said that some flights were being diverted. Two of its four runways later reopened. The airport advised passengers to check with their airlines.

The flight tracking service FlightAware.com said that Asiana 214 flew about 10 and a half hours after taking off from Incheon airport at 5:04 p.m. local time, about half an hour late. The flight had originated in Shanghai.

Ying Kong, of Albany, N.Y., told Reuters that she was waiting at the airport for her brother-in-law, Fawen Yan, of Richmond, Calif. He called her after surviving the crash and reported that people had to run and that it was “really smoky and scary.”

"I knew something was wrong," said Eugene Rah, who was a passenger on Flight 214 when it crash landed in San Francisco. He told TODAY about the moments right before and after the crash.

“He feels it difficult to breathe,” she said, “but he’s OK.”

Levy also was feeling grateful after the ordeal, despite being taken to San Francisco General Hospital for treatment of cuts and bruises and possibly a broken rib, NBC Bay Area reported.

"I am (in pain), but not too bad compared to other people," he said. “… I’m so thankful that many people got out of the plane quickly, not being too injured.” 

NBC News' Le Li, Julie Yoo, Jay Black, Becky Bratu, Mike Brunker, Jonathan Dienst, Richard Esposito, Matthew DeLuca and Stephanie Haberman contributed to this report. The Associated Press and Reuters also contributed. 

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