Police threw knives up to crew members inside the burning wreckage of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 so they could cut away passengers’ seat belts.
Passengers jumped down emergency slides, escaping the smoke. One walked through a hole where a rear bathroom had been.
Amid the chaos, some urged fellow passengers to keep calm, even as flames tore through the Boeing 777’s fuselage.
As investigators try to determine what caused the crash of Flight 214 that killed two passengers yesterday at San Francisco International Airport, the accident left many wondering how nearly all 307 people aboard were able to make it out alive.
“It’s miraculous we survived,” said passenger Vedpal Singh, who had a fractured collarbone and whose arm was in a sling.
Investigators took the flight data recorder to Washington DC overnight to begin examining its contents for clues to the last moments of the flight, officials said. They also plan to interview the pilots, the crew and passengers.
“I think we’re very thankful that the numbers were not worse when it came to fatalities and injuries,” said National Transportation Safety Board chief Deborah Hersman. “It could have been much worse.”
Ms Hersman said investigators are looking into what role the shutdown of a key navigational aid may have played in the crash. She said the glide slope – a ground-based aid that helps pilots stay on course while landing – had been shut down since June.
She said pilots were sent a notice warning that the glide slope was not available. Ms Hersman said there were many other navigation tools available to help pilots land.
Since the crash, clues have emerged in witness accounts of the plane’s approach and video of the wreckage, leading one aviation expert to say the aircraft may have approached the runway too low and something may have caught the runway lip – part of a sea wall at the foot of the runway.
Mike Barr, a former military pilot and accident investigator who teaches aviation safety at the University of Southern California, said it was possible the landing gear or the tail of the plane hit the sea wall.
He said some witnesses reported hearing the plane’s engines rev up just before the crash, which would be consistent with a pilot who realised at the last minute that the plane was too low and was increasing power to the engines.
“When you heard that explosion, that loud boom and you saw the black smoke ... you just thought, my God, everybody in there is gone,” said Ki Siadatan, who lives a few miles from the airport and watched the plane’s “wobbly” and “a little bit out of control” approach from his balcony.
“My initial reaction was I don’t see how anyone could have made it,” he said.
Inside the plane, Mr Singh, who was sitting in the middle of the aircraft with his family, said there was no forewarning from the pilot or any crew members before the plane touched down hard and he heard a loud sound.
“We knew something was horrible wrong,” said a visibly shaken Mr Singh. He said the plane went silent before people tried to get out anyway they could.
The flight originated in Shanghai, China, and stopped over in Seoul, South Korea, before making the trip to San Francisco. The airline said there were 16 crew members aboard and 291 passengers. Thirty of the passengers were children.
San Francisco Fire Department Chief Joanne Hayes-White said 19 people remained in hospital, six of them in critical condition.
She said the two 16-year-old girls who died were found on either side of the plane. Chinese state media identified them as two 16-year-old girls from China’s eastern Zhejiang province, Ye Mengyuan and Wang Linjia.