SAN FRANCISCO — As soon as Asiana Flight 214 came to a stop after a crash landing that tore off the tail and sent the Boeing 777 spinning down the runway at San Francisco International Airport, the lead flight attendant asked pilots if she should begin evacuating passengers. The answer: No.
With dust swirling in the cabin, the hundreds on board stayed in their seats. It wasn't until 90 seconds later, when a flight attendant noticed fire on the outside of the plane, that emergency slides were deployed and passengers began streaming out of the plane.
Two of the plane's eight slides malfunctioned, however, opening inside the cabin and pinning two flight attendants underneath. Meantime, the fire that started when fuel leaked onto a hot engine started spreading and flight attendants and the flight crew battled the flames as firefighters and rescuers arrived.
National Transportation Safety Board Chairwoman Deborah Hersman recounted the sequence of events at a news conference Wednesday. She said it was pieced together based on interviews with six of the 12 flight attendants.
"We don't know what the pilots were thinking, but I can tell you, in previous accidents there have been crews that don't evacuate," she said. "They wait for other vehicles to come to get the passengers out safely. Certainly if there's an awareness that there's a fire aboard the aircraft, that is a very serious issue. There was a fire, and then the evacuation began."
She said part of the crash investigation will involve deciphering if proper procedures were followed during the evacuation.
"Hindsight is 20/20," Hersman said. "We all have a perspective that's different than the people involved in this."
The plane, carrying 307 passengers and crew, crashed Saturday. When the tail was peeled off after the plane clipped the seawall at the end of the runway, three of four flight attendants seated in the rear were ejected from the plane, Hersman said. All survived and were among the six flight attendants who remain hospitalized.
Two people died in the crash and scores were injured, though most not seriously.
The flight attendants, especially lead attendant Lee Yoon Hye, have been cited for their professionalism during the evacuation. Lee and the other five attendants not hospitalized, one of whom was in a wheelchair, held a brief, emotional news conference Wednesday.
"I hope that all the families who suffered losses from this accident to recover as quickly as possible," Lee said. "They are all in my prayers."
With some of her colleagues choking back tears, Lee said they are all trying to recover.
She then quickly left the podium.