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Federal Investigators: Asiana Airlines Plane Was Flying Below Necessary Speed

July 8, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: There remained more questions than answers today about the weekend crash of a South Korean jetliner in San Francisco. Investigators searched for a cause, as emergency officials wondered aloud how nearly everyone on board survived.

NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels begins our coverage.

SPENCER MICHELS: Planes at San Francisco international airport taxied past the burned-out shell of the Boeing 777 today. It was a haunting reminder of the chaotic scene that unfolded Saturday.

Federal investigators say it’s already clear that Asiana Airlines Flight 214 was flying significantly below the necessary landing speed and was flying too low. Cockpit and flight data recorders show someone called for increasing speed just seven seconds before the crash. Then, a stall warning sounded, and the crew tried to abort the landing, but it was too late.

The head of the National Transportation Safety Board, Deborah Hersman:

DEBORAH HERSMAN, Chairwoman, National Transportation Safety Board: When we interview those four crew members, we’re going to get a lot more details about their activities, about their work, about their training. We’re going to be looking to correlate all of that information with what we’re finding on the cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder.

SPENCER MICHELS: Investigators are focusing partly on the pilot, who had logged just 43 hours on the Boeing 777. It was Lee Kang-kook’s first time landing a 777 at San Francisco’s airport, though he had landed other craft there many times, an airline spokesman said. He did have nearly 10,000 flight hours on other aircraft.

But whatever caused the crash, remarkably, 305 of the 307 passengers and crew members survived.

XU DA, Crash Survivor: When I stand up, I saw the tail, where is the kitchen located, is all missing. There was a big hole there, and I can see through the hole to the runway, the ground, and there was a lot of dust in the cabin.

SPENCER MICHELS: Some of the survivors quickly tweeted accounts of their harrowing escape, even as the rescue operation was still under way.

Today, Lieutenant Crissy Emmons of the San Francisco Fire Department described what she saw inside the plane as it caught on fire.

Lt. CRISSY EMMONS, San Francisco Fire Department: By the time we removed the final victim, the conditions were that the fire was banking down on us. We had heavy black smoke. So, I feel very lucky and blessed that we were able to get those people out in that time.

SPENCER MICHELS: Two 16-year-old girls from China were the only fatalities, and one of them may have escaped the plane, only to be hit by a rescue vehicle rushing to the scene.

But Assistant Deputy Fire Chief Dale Carnes says it’s too soon to tell for sure.

ASSISTANT DEPUTY FIRE CHIEF DALE CARNES, San Francisco Fire Department: It’s a very dynamic environment, dealing with an active fire and trying to rescue somewhere in the realm of 300 victims. So, at this time, because we have not clearly defined and established those facts, we cannot answer your questions.

SPENCER MICHELS: As the plane came to rest, passengers scrambled to get out, despite the fact that some of the emergency chutes deployed inside the cabin; 62 of those passengers ended up here at San Francisco General Hospital; 55 ended up at Stanford.

Geoffrey Manley is head of neurosurgery at San Francisco General, which has discharged most of its patients, but still has six in critical condition and two with serious spinal cord injuries that could lead to paralysis.

DR. GEOFFREY MANLEY, Chief of Neurosurgery, San Francisco General Hospital: The ligaments were simply ripped as they went forward and back in the seat with associated bone fractures as well. It is possible that these folks will never walk again. It is also possible that with some of this rapid surgery and aggressive management in the intensive care unit that they will have a chance to possibly regain some function.

SPENCER MICHELS: Manley said many injuries were not apparent at first.

GEOFFREY MANLEY: Many of these patients looked much better than they imaged, so that we had people who were the walking wounded, wherein when we were able to get the C.T. scans and so on, we saw that there was gross instability of their cervical spines, thoracic spines, and lumbar spines as a result of this injury.

SPENCER MICHELS: Meanwhile, some of the crash survivors returned to South Korea today. And the government in Seoul ordered inspections of the engines and landing equipment for all Boeing 777 jetliners owned by Asiana Airlines and South Korea’s national carrier, Korean Air.