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Plane evacuation delayed until flight attendant sees fire, officials say

By Alan Levin
Bloomberg News

The evacuation of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 didn’t start for 90 seconds after the plane crash-landed because the pilots initially told flight attendants to keep passengers in their seats, U.S. investigators said.

U.S. National Transportation Safety Board Chairwoman Deborah Hersman, describing the scene in a briefing Wednesday, said the situation changed after a flight attendant reported seeing fire outside the cabin.

At that point, two of the 12 attendants had been pinned by emergency chutes that went off inside the cabin and three others had been ejected from the plane on impact.

“What we saw here is that the first slides weren’t opened for about 90 seconds,” Hersman said. Aircraft manufacturers must demonstrate to regulators that a full load of passengers can be evacuated from a plane in that same time.

All but two of the 307 people on board survived Saturday’s crash-landing, the first fatal airline accident in the U.S. since 2009. It was Seoul-based Asiana’s first crash since a Boeing 747 cargo plane went down at sea in July 2011.

The evacuation began after a senior flight attendant seated near the plane’s second set of doors saw fire beginning near where the right engine came to rest, Hersman said.

Fire didn’t reach the cabin until most of the people were outside, she said.

Hersman said Tuesday that two flight attendants were flung outside the plane, but on Wednesday said the number was three. They had been seated in the rear of the plane and survived with unspecified injuries, she said.

Flight attendants joined pilots in trying to fight the fire advancing toward the fuselage while guiding passengers to exits as police and firefighters arrived on the scene.

Lee Kang Kuk, a veteran pilot who was transitioning to the 777 after flying smaller jets, was at the controls of Flight 214 on approach under the supervision of a senior management pilot making his first flight as a trainer, according to the NTSB.

A third pilot, seated at the rear of the cockpit, warned the crew about their altitude on the approach, Hersman said. Investigators are trying to determine how the pilots set the auto-throttle and whether it worked properly. The device flies the plane at a speed selected by pilots and has functions to keep the plane from slowing too much.

Hersman also said the pilot said he saw a flash of light at an altitude of about 500 feet as he approached the runway. That was the altitude at which the pilots have told investigators they realized the plane was coming in too low.

“We really don’t know at this point what it could have been,” she said, declining to say whether it may have been a laser pointer, an increasing hazard for pilots at major airports. “We need to look into it.”


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