By Martha Mendoza
SAN FRANCISCO: As Flight 214 descended over San Francisco Bay, both Asiana Airlines pilots were trying something new.
In the left seat of the cockpit sat Lee Gang-kuk, a 46-year-old pilot with just 35 hours of experience flying a Boeing 777 who was landing the big jet for his first time at San Francisco International Airport. At his right was Lee Jeong-Min, a trainer making his first trip as an instructor pilot.
While the two men had years of aviation experience, this mission involved unfamiliar duties, and it was the first time they had flown together. The flight came to a tragic end when the airliner crash-landed Saturday, killing two passengers and injuring many others.
National Transportation Safety Board chairman Deborah Hersman said Wednesday the pilot told investigators he was blinded by a light at about 500 feet, which would have been 34 seconds before impact and the point at which the airliner began to slow and drop precipitously. She said lasers have not been ruled out.
It was unclear, however, if the flash might have played a role in the crash.
The agency also said that after the crash landing, passengers were told to stay seated while the crew contacted the control tower, and people did not begin fleeing the aircraft until 90 seconds later when a fire was spotted outside the plane.
At that point, the doors were opened and escape slides were inflated. Two flight attendants were pinned by slides that inflated inside during the impact.
Experts say investigators trying to piece together what went wrong will consider the report about the light and many other factors including the pairing of the pilots, who were assigned to work together through a tightly regulated system developed after several deadly crashes in the 1980s that were blamed in part on inexperience in the cockpit.
The flight originated in Shanghai and stopped over in Seoul before making the nearly 11-hour trip to San Francisco.
Nearly 20 survivors remained hospitalized Wednesday, and families arrived to care for many of them.
Three flight attendants thrown from the airliner during the accident were among those hurt. One of them has been identified as 25-year-old Maneenat Tinnakul, whose father told the Thairath newspaper the family was given a visa to visit their daughter in San Francisco. He said Maneenat suffered a minor backache.
Another flight attendant, identified as Sirithip Singhakarn, was reportedly in an intensive care unit.
Meanwhile, fire officials continued to study whether one of their trucks ran over one of the two Chinese teenagers killed in the crash. Wang Linjia and Ye Mengyuan were part of a group headed for a summer camp.