'Hero' flight attendant last off Asiana 777 that crashed in San Francisco
Evacuation began badly, with two emergency slides inflating inside and trapping crew
The evacuation of Asiana Flight 214 began badly. Even before the mangled jetliner began filling with smoke, two evacuation slides on the doors inflated inside the cabin instead of outside, pinning two flight attendants to the floor.
Cabin manager Lee Yoon-hye, apparently the last person to leave the burning plane, said crew members deflated the slides with axes to rescue their colleagues, one of whom seemed to be choking beneath the weight of a slide.
Lee described several dramatic moments in the remarkable evacuation that saved 305 of the 307 people on the plane that crashed Saturday while landing in San Francisco.
One flight attendant, Kim Ji-yeon, 30, put a scared and injured elementary schoolboy on her back and slid down a slide, said Lee, in the first comments by a crew member since the crash of the Boeing 777. A pilot helped another injured flight attendant off the plane after the passengers escaped.
Lee herself worked to put out fires and usher passengers to safety despite a broken tailbone that kept her standing throughout a news briefing with mostly South Korean reporters at a San Francisco hotel. She said she didn’t know how badly she was hurt until a doctor at a San Francisco hospital later treated her.
It was still unclear whether the pilot’s inexperience with the aircraft and airport played a role, and officials were also investigating whether the airport’s or plane’s equipment could have malfunctioned.
Aviation and airline officials said although the pilot has flown a Boeing 777 nine times – for a modest 43 hours in total – it was the first time he was landing that wide-bodied jet into San Francisco. Investigators have said he had realised he was flying too slow and too low, and tried to abort the landing and go back up in the air, but he failed.
Lee, 40, who has nearly 20 years’ experience with Asiana, said she knew seconds before impact that something was wrong with the plane.
“Right before touchdown, I felt like the plane was trying to take off. I was thinking, ‘What’s happening?’ and then I felt a bang,” Lee said. “That bang felt harder than a normal landing. It was a very big shock. Afterward, there was another shock and the plane swayed to the right and to the left.”
Lee said that after the captain ordered an evacuation, she knew what to do. “I wasn’t really thinking, but my body started carrying out the steps needed for an evacuation,” Lee said. “I was only thinking about rescuing the next passenger.”
When Lee saw that the plane was burning after the crash, she was calm. “I was only thinking that I should put it out quickly. I didn’t have time to feel that this fire was going to hurt me,” she said.
There were 12 flight attendants, including Lee, on the plane. Ten were South Korean nationals, Asiana said, and two were Thai nationals who were seriously hurt.
Lee said she was the last person off the plane and that she tried to approach the back of the aircraft before she left to double-check that no one was left inside. But when she moved to the back of the plane, a cloud of black, toxic smoke made it impossible. “It looked like the ceiling had fallen down,” she said.
San Mateo County Coroner Robert Foucrault said two people killed in the crash – both teenage students from China – were found outside the jetliner.
More than a third of the people onboard didn’t require the hospital, and only a small number were critically injured.
The San Francisco fire chief, Joanne Hayes-White, praised Lee, whom she talked to after the evacuation.
“She was so composed I thought she had come from the terminal,” Hayes-White told reporters in a clip posted to YouTube. “She wanted to make sure that everyone was off. ... She was a hero.”