SAN FRANCISCO — Investigators have found no evidence of mechanical problems with Asiana Flight 214, the head of the National Transportation Safety Board said Thursday, putting the focus of the safety probe into the crash landing at the San Francisco airport squarely on the pilots.
In her final briefing before the agency concludes its on-site detective work, NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said the airplane itself showed no signs of a breakdown, and on voice recorders, the pilots of the Boeing 777 fail to notice that their approach is dangerously low and slow until it's too late.
"There is no mention of speed until about nine seconds before impact when they're at 100 feet," she said Thursday. Just seconds before impact, two of the pilots call for the landing to be aborted.
Investigators have stressed that nothing has been definitively ruled out and no firm conclusions reached. The agency's final evaluation is expected to take more than a year.
The airliner itself, though heavily damaged in the crash, had no malfunctions in any critical systems, including the engines and flight-control surfaces, the autopilot, the autothrottles and the flight director, she said.
Two people were killed and 180 of the 307 people were hurt Saturday when the airliner slammed into a seawall at the end of the runway. The impact ripped off the back of the plane, tossed out three flight attendants and their seats and scattered pieces of the jet across the runway as it spun and skidded to a stop.
The battered passengers, some with broken bones, were told over the jet's public-address system to stay in their seats for another 90 seconds while the cockpit consulted with the control tower, a safety procedure to prevent people from evacuating into life-threatening fires or machinery.
And in this accident, authorities are investigating whether one of the two Chinese teens who died may have been run over by a fire truck rushing to the burning jet.
Hersman has said repeatedly that pilots Lee Gang-kuk, who was landing the big jet for his first time at the San Francisco airport, and Lee Jeong-Min, who was training him were ultimately responsible for a safe landing.
The NTSB investigators will soon head back to Washington with "a mountain of information" to analyze and review, from pieces of the airliner to interview transcripts.
A firefighter who scrambled aboard the jet looking for victims as fire was breaking out told inspectors the seats in that section of the aircraft were almost pristine.
"He said it looked like you just fluff the pillows and turn the airplane around it can go out for its next flight."
That section soon erupted in flames caused by oil spilling on hot engines. The fuel tanks did not rupture, Hersman said Thursday.
The FAA has found "no significant issues" during 134 unannounced mechanical, pilot or avionic checks on Aviana airliners over the last 18 months, said Hersman.
Hersman clarified Thursday that the pilot trainee told investigators he saw a flash of 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 he told investigators that the light did not prevent him from seeing his instruments, and that it may have been a reflection of the sun. The other pilots made no mention of a light, she said.