Passenger in San Francisco airliner crash: 'We had to help each other out'

Survivors share their story of Saturday's crash landing in San Francisco.


San Francisco Airliner Crash

This photo provided by Dawn Siadatan shows Asiana Airlines flight 214 just moments after crashing at the San Francisco International Airport in San Francisco, Saturday, July 6, 2013. The Asiana Airlines Boeing 777 crashed while landing after a likely 10-hour-plus flight from Seoul, South Korea. The flight originated in Shanghai and stopped in Seoul before the long trek to San Francisco. (AP Photo/Dawn Siadatan)


SAN FRANCISCO - The plane slammed into the ground, then everything went dark.

Screams filled the plane as luggage fell out of overhead compartments, people flew out of their seats, oxygen masks dropped and the cabin filled with ash. The plane slid back and forth.

Passenger Hee Young said it felt like the plane was going the wrong way.

Wen "Kitty" Zhang looked back and saw daylight where the plane's bathroom had been just moments before. Zhang, who was in a window seat near the tail, grabbed her 4-year-old son Qixuan Xu and walked through a hole in the back of the plane and on to the tarmac.

She was one of several survivors who talked with The Chronicle one day after Asiana Airlines Flight 214 crash-landed at San Francisco International Airport and burst into flames, killing two people and injuring more than 100 others.

"I take my baby and luggage and just walked off," Zhang said Sunday, in halting English, still not sure if she left through an emergency exit or a hole from the missing tail. "I just walk off."

Zhang walked away with nothing more than a few bruises. Qixuan, the 4-year-old, suffered a broken leg, probably when he was thrown into the seat in front of him. Another four of Zhang's relatives also remained at San Francisco General Hospital on Sunday, where they were being treated for non life-threatening injuries.

But overall, Zhang was relieved at her family's relatively minor injuries.

"We will all be ok," Zhang said as she left the San Francisco General with a shopping list of clothing.

Not everyone will be. Two teenage girls were killed and 182 people were taken to hospitals. At San Francisco General alone - where the most severely injured were transported - 17 people remained in the hospital Sunday, including six with critical injuries. Margaret Knudson, chief of surgery, said two of those victims are paralyzed.

The firefighters, paramedics and police officers who helped get those people to 11 area hospitals arrived on the airport tarmac Saturday within minutes of the plane crash. When they did, the aircraft was engulfed in flames, the chutes were deployed and passengers were self-evacuating.

Strapped into seat 30K, an exit row, Benjamin Levy thought his ribs were broken. There were no announcements from the cockpit, and the flight attendants were nowhere to be found.

Levy stood up inside the shattered aircraft. He pried open the escape door and began to call out directions.

"We were left on our own," Levy told The New York Times. "There was no message from the pilot, from the crew - there was no one. We had to help each other out," he said, describing how he and others stayed in the plane and helped passengers escape, shouting for them to keep calm.

The first responders immediately began to triage patients. Two police officers stationed at the airport rushed to the smoldering plane and threw knives to the flight crew so they could cut stranded passengers out of their seat belts, said Police Chief Greg Suhr; others climbed inside the wreckage to help people out.

"Looking at the interior of that plane, it's unbelievable everyone made it off," he said.

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