For 39-year-old Tao Liu, talking about the nightmare of Asiana Flight 214 is not a possibility, at least not now. “It’s too hard,” Liu said Monday, briefly talking to a reporter before she headed to her hotel room in San Jose. “It was my first time in the U.S.”
Liu, a small, soft-spoken woman, was one of five Chinese teachers who accompanied 29 students from Zhejiang, an affluent coastal province, on the flight. The students, who ranged in age from 16 to 17, were heading to different colleges and high schools around California as part of a three-week summer camp.
It didn’t happen. Just seconds before their plane was to land at San Francisco International Airport on Saturday, it crashed on the runway, killing two of Liu’s students and badly injuring others. Ye Mengyuan and Wang Linjia, 16-year-old students at Jiangshan Middle School in eastern China near Shanghai, died in the crash. Two other teens from the group remain hospitalized, one still in serious condition. “One is really sick,” said Zoey Zou, a church camp organizer. “She was still unconscious. She was badly hurt.”
Liu, who was uninjured, was holding back tears as she spoke. She said she believed her surviving students would be fine—one day. “It’s too hard for them to talk,” she said. They need support, she added: "I don't think they can do everything by themselves."
Currently, Liu’s surviving students are in limbo. Six of them lost their passports in the fiery crash; the rest lost their luggage and purses. The day after the incident, Catherine, a tour organizer, says she took the students shopping at Fisherman’s Wharf and in downtown San Francisco. They even stopped off at Costco to buy food. Some of the visibly shaken students met briefly in the lobby of a San Jose Marriott on Monday afternoon with Consul General Yuan Nansheng. "I told them they were very brave and I expressed my respect for them," Nansheng said during a press conference. Nearby were lobby chairs filled with boxes of tube socks, hair bands, and underwear as well as trays of croissants, bottles of strawberry-flavored milk, and water for the students.
“They’re feeling bad,” says Catherine, who didn’t want to give her last name. “I want to help them. For most of them, it was their first time in the U.S.” Whether the group stays or not depends on their families in China, she said. Until then, the students are mostly keeping away from the press, holed up in their hotel rooms watching television and sleeping.
Although a final decision has not been made, tour organizer Adam Yu thinks the students will return home to China in the next few days. ”The students and parents are missing each other,” he says. “They need a few days to recover. They’re very emotional. It’s best for them to take a few days’ rest before sending them on an airplane again. It would be scary for them. They were shocked. They’re afraid to take an airplane right away.”
Of the 291 passengers on board Flight 214, 141 were Chinese. At least 70 Chinese students and teachers from at least three different groups were on the plane heading to summer camps all over California. In total, five Chinese passengers remain hospitalized at San Francisco General Hospital.
Yu believes that one of the dead teens, whose body was found on the runway, may not have been wearing a seatbelt. “The ones next to her were fine,” he said. “Others in the same line and the line behind her were fine. Some of the students in the back row were safe.”
Yu said this was the ninth year for the summer camp, and it had always turned out well for the students. Because of the crash, Yu says, he’s not sure if the program will continue. “We’ll have to see,” he said. “It’s not our choice. It has to be decided by the students.”
Wang Chuan, a spokesperson with the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco, spent Monday afternoon at the San Francisco General Hospital checking on the five remaining Chinese patients there. Chuan says that at least two of the five should be released this week. One of the patients suffered a serious neck injury, he said. Another patient he saw had an injury to his backbone. A teenage boy, he said, is in serious condition with injuries to his head and abdomen.
“They’re not pessimistic and sad,” Chuan said of the patients. “Some feel lucky. It was a serious brush. Some of them are asking where their teachers and classmates are. We feel they are good boys and girls, and I believe they will get better soon and face any challenges ahead of them.”
The fact that more people didn’t die, he said, was a miracle. “My first reaction when I saw one of the patient’s face and head was sadness,” he said. “But at the same time I saw the smile on their faces. They are really very brave, and they are facing up to the tragedy.”
Chuan says the consulate is still waiting for the cause of death on one of the young women, who may have been run over by an emergency vehicle. “We are waiting for the autopsy report,” he said.
Meanwhile, Asiana Airlines released information about the pilot who landed the ill-fated Boeing 777. According to a spokesman, it was Lee Kang-kook’s maiden flight to the airport with the big jet.
According to the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board chairwoman Deborah Hersman, the plane was flying “significantly below” its required speed and its crew tried to abort the landing just seconds before it crashed into the seawall in front of the runway.
At a press conference on Sunday, Hersman said it was too early in the investigation to determine if the crash was caused by pilot error or something else. However, she did say that there didn’t seem to be any issue with the plane prior to its crashing into the runway. Witnesses who saw the crash commented that the plane seemed to be flying too low on its approach to the airport, and then hit the ground before the runway began. The jolt ripped off part of the tail of the plane.
Asked if she wanted to return back to China, Liu responded: "I'm not sure. I can't decide."