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NBC News: 'People screaming and not really believing': Survivor recounts crash ordeal

Courtesy NBC News

By Erin McClam, Staff Writer, NBC News

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 on Saturday, shortly after being taken by ambulance from San Francisco International Airport.  "A lot of people screaming and not really believing what has happening to them. I wasn't believing it either."

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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 jet killed 49 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.

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."

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