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Boeing 777 Crashes in San Francisco; Former NTSB Chairman Discusses How Crash Investigations Are Conducted

Aired July 6, 2013 - 18:00   ET


DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: OK. That is a briefing that we have been awaiting from the NTSB and of course NTSB saying, not giving very much information. Of course Robert Francis former NTSB chairman right about that. Again, they talked about where the plane was landing. That it was a Boeing 777 Asiana flight 214. Took off from Seoul as we had been reporting in route to San Francisco. Runway 28L, it was supposed to land but made the crash landing there. And they said that they are working now, they are in route. They are on are in their way to San Francisco, their reams and that are working in conjunction with their counterparts in Korea to try to figure out exactly what is going on. And that Boeing will likely be part of the investigation as well.

Robert Francis, if you could hear me this time, former NTSB vice chairman and investigator, you heard that press conference. That's about what you thought would come out of that press conference, right?


LEMON: Yes. OK, Mr. Francis, we will get back to you. Thank you very much for that. It's the top of the hour. We want to update our viewers now.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is CNN breaking news.

LEMON: I'm Don Lemon. Live in New York here I want to update our viewers on what is going on. I want to welcome our viewers in the United States watching around the world, watching CNN international and also other networks. It is our breaking news here on CNN.

A Boeing 777 on a flight from South Korea crash landed today at the San Francisco airport. 291 passengers, 16 crew members were onboard the Asiana airlines flight 214. Some of the passengers were seen walking off the plane. We know some are injured but the exact number has not been disclosed. The Asiana airlines plane had flown across the pacific from Seoul and was preparing to land when something went terribly wrong obviously.

The plane crash landed on a runway, we're told runway 28-L. It crash landed there and a fire ball erupted. Parts of the plane rocked and broke apart. Huge plumes of gray and white smoke rose up. The plane's roof, what is left of it, is now charred with a large, gaping hole. The plane's tail in pieces. And as I said, we're still waiting to hear about the injured. We just heard from the national transportation safety board. There were a number of passengers onboard, obviously. Some of them were talking about -- are talking now about what they saw and what they felt. This is an eyewitness to the crash. Let's listen.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And I saw it coming in. I was just watching planes come in and this one I saw that it looked normal at first. It was taking the same angle that they always come in like this. The wheels were down and then I know something was wrong about three or five seconds out I started calling to my fiance and said this doesn't look right. This doesn't look right. The wheels were too low too soon. So, this is the run way. It came in like this. And I was just watching the wheels. And it just hit like that and the whole thing collapsed immediately. It never really had a chance.

It was like a really blunt, blunt trauma to the whole plane. It just pancaked immediately like that. It collapsed and then it slid and then after a while, it started to slide and pivot. It was counterclockwise. And then the wings caught on the tarmac there. And then they flew off and just about -- the whole inside of the cabin went orange.


LEMON: All right. That was an eyewitness.

I want to bring in Dr. Todd Curtis who is an aviation expert and also the founder of air which has been in existence for how long?


LEMON: As you are listening, you sat here and you heard the NTSB press conference. You also heard from the eyewitnesses to this. It is really soon to sort of speculate as to what happened, but what is your assessment from listening to these folks?

CURTIS: Well, from listening to the witnesses and also looking at some of the footage from San Francisco, it appears the aircraft landed short of the runway. There was a debris trail right to the water's edge and then where the aircraft came to rest. So, for whatever reason, the aircraft landed maybe a thousand feet, maybe longer, short of the runway.

LEMON: So, when witnesses say there was -- Eunice Behr, who was on earlier said her father was on the plane and knew it was coming because it looked like the plane was coming in short and the pilot tried to go back into the air very quickly which, we, you know, many people who fly a lot have had mislandings where they overshoot the runway or come in too short. And then all of the sudden, you get that jolt where the plane goes back in the air. Usually it works out. This one if that is indeed the case did not.

CURTIS: For whatever reason, and again, this is entirely premature to speculate. But they did land substantially short of the runway. And the way jet engines work and aircraft respond even if the pilot had put on extra thrust several seconds before impact it may not have been in time.

LEMON: People are asking, have been asking where and we're looking at these pictures now from our affiliate KPIX out there. You see the number of people who are on this tarmac now and trying to figure out exactly what went wrong. I would imagine all the passengers are off the plane now.

CURTIS: We hope.

LEMON: Yes, we hope that all the passengers are off the plane. So, you have heard from the people in the tower as well speaking saying, you know, 214 heavy. And most people at home don't know what that means, 214 heavy, what that means. But explain to us what happened in this particular situation, what might happen in the control tower and the folks in the plane. What's going on?

CURTIS: Well, calling the 214 heavy is fairly routine. It depends on the size of the aircraft. So, we should read nothing into that. As far as what air traffic controllers could do at that point it is all in the hands of the flight crew at that point. The air traffic controllers may be able to give them some feedback that they see the aircraft coming in at an unusually shallow angle or too low. But this is the situation where the best situation is in the cockpit.

LEMON: Yes. People are asking, where is the tail? Where is that other engine?

CURTIS: Well, as you see from some of the photos, there was quite a bit of a debris trail going back to the water's edge. And early in that debris trail you saw what appeared to be the vertical fin, the tail as two horizontal stabilizers and also the rear bulkhead at the rear of the fuselage was ruptured. So, it would appear as though the back end of the aircraft disintegrated after contact. As for the engines, one of them appeared to be broken off and slight in front of the wing. As for the second I couldn't tell for sure where it was.

LEMON: If you listen to Asiana airlines and the reporters who have been reporting on this are saying only five or six such incidents in recent history. Is that a lot? Is that a good safety record?

CURTIS: Well, zero is a great safety record. But in the case of the 777, there was one very prominent incident that some are similar to this in early 2008, British airways, 777 landed short in the runway in Heathrow. In that event it was a variety of factors that led to that no one was killed. But it is entirely premature to say whether this has anything directly related to that event or to any past accidents. They will take time.

LEMON: OK. I'm also getting -- pardon me while I read this. Out of the 291 passengers onboard the flight, flight 214, 61 of them I'm being told were Americans, 77 of the passengers South Korean, 114 are Chinese, and one is Japanese.

Again, we also have a statement from San Francisco general hospital that I'm going to read here right now. It is from the hospital and trauma center there. They said as of 2:00 p.m. SFGH, San Francisco General Hospital, has received six female and four male patients for a total of ten patients from the Asiana airlines incident. There are eight adults and two children. The adults range in age from 20 to 40 years old. All patients are in critical condition. In order to increase the capacity for more patients we are expected to be transported to. SFGH tents have been set up outside the hospital emergency department to accommodate both walk-in emergency patients and to care for additional patients from the crash whose injuries may not require trauma level care. San Francisco General Hospital is the only trauma center in San Francisco. And at this time, the number of additional patients from the airline incident is unknown.

This is still unfolding. For something of this capacity of this magnitude when you look at that you expect injuries here?

CURTIS: Well, given the state of the aircraft it is not surprising. Given the fact we had a large capacity aircraft crash it is also normal for hospitals in the major metropolitan area to respond this way.

This is a mass casualty type event. Airports around the country have periodic drills where hospitals, fire departments, police departments, airport personnel basically run through an exercise what if we had a large accident here, what would we do? So, I would say that many people involved here especially organizations like the hospital are falling back on time-tested procedures.

LEMON: All right. Stand by.

Thank you very much for coming in on a Saturday afternoon, an incredible story unfolding here on CNN.

And we are getting new information by the moment. We want to tell you we are expecting a news conference at the San Francisco international airport at any moment. We want to get a quick break in and we're right back after this.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is CNN breaking news.

LEMON: Breaking news here on CNN. We're following on the story that's happening in San Francisco a large commercial plane has crash landed on the runway there and we are awaiting word to find out exactly how many folks are injured. We know 291 passengers were onboard that plane and we're hearing many have been transported to the hospital.

As a matter of fact, San Francisco general hospital has said that they have received six female patients, four male patients, a total of ten patients from the Asiana airline incident. There are eight adults, two children. The adults range in age from 20s to 40s. All patients they say are in critical condition at this point.

This is a news conference and now this is going to happen at San Francisco international airport at any moment. We are expecting officials there, city officials as well as airline officials to take part in that particular press conference when it happens.

Just a short time ago we heard from the national transportation safety board in Washington. All they would say was confirm the information that we have been reporting to you here all afternoon and evening on CNN. Flight 214 the Asiana flight, Boeing 777 from Seoul, South Korea to San Francisco. Crash landing on runway 28-l. Crashed upon landing.

They are saying they're working with their counterparts in Korea to deal with this and also they said that they are expecting Boeing to be a participant in the investigation as well. They're sending their teams there and they will regroup as soon as they get more information.

Again, a press conference, news conference about to begin at the San Francisco airport. There it is. We are expecting the mayor as well as other officials from the city and the airlines and from the airport as well to take part in this particular press conference.

Richard Quest is in London, Diana Magnae is in Seoul, South Korea.

First to Richard Quest before we get to Washington where we have Rene Marsh who is following the investigation for us here in the United States.

First to Richard Quest. Richard, you heard the press conference. There for the NTSB in Washington saying that they're sending their team is on the way but it is too early to speculate.

RICHARD QUEST, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: Yes. And what happens, of course, is the go team as it is known will go from the NTSB. The airline -- aircraft manufacturer, Boeing, will have its own representatives, which will also be on their own go team. Pratt & Whitney will have a go team because they are the manufacturers of the engine. Asiana will have a team. In fact, everybody who is in some shape, form or description involved in this airline or this aircraft will have a team of people that will be on their way to San Francisco at the moment.

And, of course, various international organizations will then become accredit to the investigation in the future. Let's look at the picture of the aircraft. As you're seeing it at the moment but in the positioning as it is between the two runways. You say it was coming in for an approach or landing on 28-L. The L stands for left. San Francisco has the 28 left and 28 right. And those are the two sort of runways that go out toward the ocean.

The aircraft was coming in for a landing on 28 left and from what you can see from the pictures, it clearly landed in what's known as the displaced runway zone. That's before the piano keys if you like, the threshold part. That of course is where the plane then started to break up. Just spinning around as it would appear to be again looking at the pictures and ending on the -- in the medium between 28 left and 28 right.

What we are now hearing, of course, from the hospital, those casualty numbers that you mentioned, we know people got off the plane and we see many people running away from the aircraft and those who are taking photographs and tweeting them thereafter. But the size and severity of the fire that destroyed the upper fuselage, removing the tail at the same time, that does suggest that this is going to be in the high end and it would not -- we're talking about some serious injuries if not loss of life as well -- Don.

LEMON: Richard, stand by because I would like to get you and Dr. Todd Curtis here. You two know a lot about the airline industry and about the 777. Dr. Todd Curtis, is a founder of that and also an aviation expert. Again, as we are hearing all of these reports here and you see the debris strewn apart on the runway there. And You are saying it is possible some of the debris is now in the water.

CURTIS: It's possible because there were clearly pieces right up to the edge of the water.

LEMON: What does that mean for the black boxes, the cockpit recorders, all of that?

CURTIS: Well, the area of the aircraft where those boxes usually are didn't look to be particularly destroyed by fire so it is very likely those boxes are still intact and the data is still intact. And there may be other boxes other than the standard cockpit voice recorder and digital flight data recorder that could be having maintenance data and other data from the aircraft.

LEMON: And Richard, listen. Again, we don't want to speculate but the 777, tell us about -- talk to us a little bit more about that. Here is some of the information on that. There are a lot of passengers that can fly on that plane between 305 and 340 passengers depending how it is configured. It can cross oceans. Obviously, the newer models can fly more than 8,000 nautical miles without stopping to refuel. It cruises about 43,000 feet. As this plane come online, we get as probably as much information as possible about whoever know. Were there ever any issues with the 777?

QUEST: Nothing that is in the league we're talking about today. I mean, if you go back to 1990 when it came into service there was the usual teething problems but since then we've had the 777 200. We've had the ER. We've had the LR. We have had the 300. And we are now on the 777 300 ER. This is the one that crashed today was a 200. ER standing for extended range. More than 1400 have been sold.

If you look at the U.S. aviation fleet, the airline fleet, if you look at united, if you look at delta, if you look at American particularly American and United, the back bone of that long haul aircraft is the 777. It has an excellent safety record. In mean, if we talk about incidents with the 777, probably the most serious before this was the British airways incident where the plane lost power on its approach to London Heathrow and crashed. Just before it glided in for the last half mile or so short of the runway.

Now, on that occasion and before everybody starts to draw similarities on that occasion, it was entirely because of a problem with icing in the fuel system which has since been well rectified and dealt with. So, anyone who wants to refer to the British airways 777 incident several years ago I think is not going to be relevant in this particular case. And certainly and looking again, Don, at the pictures we're seeing, that is an excellent picture that you are looking at the moment because here you see 28 left and 28 right. Anybody who's flown into San Francisco knows well you really do feel like you might land on the water. You are of course a hundred or two above before you go over the arrows and then over the threshold before the plane flies and what's happened here is for whatever reason the pilot has put the aircraft down or the plane has come down short of the threshold landing in the displaced part, not on the center line. And then spinning around having lost the tail ending up in the middle.

LEMON: Very similar to landing as you would know, Richard, landing at LaGuardia airport for our viewers here in the United States.

QUEST: Well, one difference. One at the LaGuardia airport with the pontoons of one of the runways, but yes, on the other runway certainly. Washington national, Reagan national is a, perhaps, where you actually do get the airport, the runway going right away to the water's edge as you come in off the bank. And certainly, you are on one of the approaches.

LEMON: Richard Quest, stand by. Doctor Curtis, stand by.

Again as I want to tell our viewers who are waiting for a press conference -- are waiting a press conference, the San Francisco international airport, we will have that on the other side of a very quick break.


LEMON: Breaking news here on CNN. A news conference outside San Francisco general. Let's listen in.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't know of any deaths here. I have no information on deaths here. Yes?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I can't go into that right now. I don't have any information other than what I've given you all. So I am going to stop now and I'll be back at 4:00. You can call the media hotline hourly and the e-mail and I'll keep churning out this information. As long as we have new developments all day every hour. At the point where we aren't going to have new developments I'll let you know that will be the last update. OK? Thank you.

LEMON: OK. That was a press conference for San Francisco general hospital. Basically someone giving us the same information they gave us earlier. And I think is important to point out she said she had no information about any deaths there at San Francisco general. But what she did say earlier at the press conference confirming what earlier that San Francisco general hospital has received six female and four male patients for a total of ten patients from the Asiana airlines incident. There are eight adults and two children. The adults range in age from 20s to 40s. All the patients are in critical condition.

And as we look at the shot on the left, that is San Francisco general hospital. Obviously, the shot on the right is that plane that crash landed at San Francisco international airport. And at that airport we are awaiting a press conference from city officials and airline officials. It should happen at any moment now. There they are. Right there. The reporters are in the room. And as soon as we get more information on that as soon as they approach those microphones we will bring you that news conference live.

To Washington now and CNN's Rene Marsh who are following the developments from the national transportation safety board as well as the FAA.

Rene, what do you have for us?

RENE MARSH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Don, our transportation team just digging up some more information about this airline, Asiana airlines. We can tell you that this is the fifth incident or crash involving this particular airline. The company was founded in 1988 and just forgive me. I'm going to read some of my notes here. The source of this was the aviation safety network which simply compiles the information from both the NTSB and FAA reports.

So, in the case of this particular airline again five incidents in the past. Four of the incidents occurred in Asia and of course the one that happened today happened today in the United States. So, this is the first incident or crash in the United States as it relates to this specific airline. Again, this company was founded back in 1988. So, that is a track record based On the Records again from NTSB and the FAA -- Don.

LEMON: All right, thank you very much. We appreciate that.

We will get back to Rene Marsh as soon as she gets more information there in Washington.

And again, we heard from the NTSB a short time ago. We're awaiting a press conference in San Francisco from city officials and airline officials as well.

Robert Francis is with us, a former NTSB vice chair and investigator as well.

And Mr. Francis, a lot has transpired between now and then we have heard from the hospital and they told us about their injuries and we're also getting information from the national transportation and safety board. At this point, your assessment? I know you don't want to speculate. You said it's premature to do this.

FRANCIS: I would say that the thing that pleases me the most is that apparently the number, I don't know whether they're fatalities or not, but given the number of people on the airplane and the amount of wreckage and the apparent state of the airplane at this point I think it is pretty remarkable that we haven't heard about more people being hurt and perhaps killed. LEMON: So we have seen these line of investigators across the air field and also seen them looking into the water. What are they doing?

FRANCIS: They're looking for pieces of the aircraft, looking for anything that might have broken off or would give them an idea of what was the first thing that happened? I mean, did the wheels hit the end of the runway? If they did, were pieces being dropped off after that? And where did they land and what were they?

LEMON: The news conference from the NTSB was particularly short, but all routine in your estimation?

FRANCIS: Absolutely predictable. And they said just what they should have said and they didn't say anything they should not have said. And with Chairman Hersman, she is very good and she is going out to the accident and she is articulate and she'll be a very good spokesperson.

LEMON: She said working with the counterparts in Korea to deal with this. What is the counterpart there? What would that be?

FRANCIS: I don't know the name of the organization. But they have an accident -- sort of a counterpart to the NTSB. And they - more probably it's just for aviation, but they will be sending experts covering the same kinds of parts of the aircraft personnel, pilotage, et cetera, and they will be a party to the investigation. FAA is a party to the investigation. Boeing's party, whoever manufactured the aircraft. Engines will be a party. And there will be a large number of parties to start and then when it's found out perhaps that an engine wasn't an issue then maybe G.E.(ph) rolls or whoever it is will drop out. But certainly the airline and the Korean counterpart to the NTSB. And maybe the Korean counterpart to the FAA will continue to be parties throughout.

LEMON: All right. Mr. Francis, thank you. We appreciate your expertise. We'll get back to you throughout the evening here on CNN. And I want to tell our viewers that we are awaiting a press conference at the San Francisco International Airport to begin in just moments. This is live, continuing coverage of this disaster in San Francisco here on CNN. We're back after a very short break.


LEMON: Breaking news here on CNN. There you see the plane. Live pictures of that plane at San Francisco International Airport. That is Flight 214 from Seoul, South Korea. The Asiana airliner was on its way to San Francisco International Airport when it crash landed on runway 28-L. We have the live pictures for you and will be covering this throughout the evening here on CNN. Very shortly we are expecting a news conference to take place with the mayor, other city officials as well as airline officials as soon as they step in front of the microphones, up to that podium where we'll care that for you live here on CNN. In the meantime, the worldwide resources of CNN on top of this story for us. In London this evening is CNN's Richard Quest. In Washington, CNN's Rene Marsh. In Seoul, South Korea Diana Magnay. Here in New York with me is Todd Curtis, Dr. Todd Curtis, an aviation expert. And also Robert Francis, an NTSB investigator and the former vice chair of the NTSB.

Mr. Curtis, to you first. I spoke to Mr. Francis about the people who are fanned out on that air field looking for he said parts of the airplane and other things as well. Standard operating procedure here?

TODD CURTIS, FORMER BOEING AVIATION SAFETY ENGINEER: That is. Because there is no telling what piece may be critical to investigation and you want to go out there and collect as much as you can before weather, winds, water, what have you makes those pieces hard to find.

LEMON: Mr. Francis, we just heard from San Francisco that two runways have been reopened now. Does that seem pretty par to you that something of this magnitude, many people would be surprised that the airport would be back up and running even if it's just two runways at this point?

FRANCIS: I think that's normal. I mean they've got - they've got delays, major delays already. The runways are separated enough so that they'll be able to use the runways that are, that remain to them. Not - probably the capacity of the airport will be down somewhat obviously they've lost a major runway. But it's not surprising that they start up again.

LEMON: OK. I now want to tell our viewers information from San Francisco General Hospital. They also just held a press conference a short time ago as we await on the one from the - await the one from the city in just moments. But they said as of 2:00 p.m., as of 2 P.M, which is their time they said San Francisco General has received six female and four male patients from the Asiana Airlines accident. There are eight adults and two children. The adults range in age from 20s to 40s. All patients they said are in critical condition at this hour. Here is also what is important to me. They said in order to increase capacity for more patients who are expected to be transported to San Francisco General they said that tents have been set up outside the hospital emergency department to accommodate both walk-in emergency patients and to care for additional patients from the crash whose injuries may not require trauma level care. San Francisco General is the only trauma center in San Francisco. The hospital emergency department and staff are ready to accept more patients as they arrive and at this time the number of additional patients from the airline accident is unknown. So let's talk about all of this.

I want to get to CNN's Richard Quest in London. As we look, Richard, at all of this debris on the runways here, runway 28-L we were talking just a short time ago about the challenges if any in landing at San Francisco International Airport. Because they land over water, does that present some issue, any particular issue with landing here?

QUEST: No, not in the slightest. San Francisco has a very long out approach. In fact, it's got a quite a complicated system because obviously because there is a lot of other aviation that's going up and down the western seaboard. There are other airports nearby as well. But substantially - I mean no. You go way out. You come around and you come straight back in again. For those 28 Left and 28 Right. Bad weather can sometimes be an influence. San Francisco, low fog and the sort of weather that they often enjoy or suffer in the bay area. But as we know today, there were none of those incidents, there were none of those questions. It was a clear day from everything that we are hearing at the moment. The 777 aircraft. Let's talk a little bit, for a second or two about that.

And it because it does have an excellent record. When you think that 1400 of them have been ordered. And that substantially there's only been one or two serious incidents in all the time it has been flying. Lots of glitches or things on the way but nothing, absolutely nothing of this sort of magnitude, except, perhaps, the British Airways case in London.

And to put it into perspective for you, the press conference that you are now waiting to hear, the news conference you're waiting to hear from the airport - that will obviously be crucial because we're going to get some idea of how the airport responded. We might get some more information from that particular news conference, Don, on the number of casualties or the number of people who at least have walked away. I remember the first one of those news conferences that I covered. That was in Kennedy Airport, Pan Am 103, Lockerbie - all those years ago. So, when you do get an incident like this, we are looking to get that sort of information of what might happen, how many people were sent to hospital, how many people are still in the airport. What their condition is. And that we will get from that news conference, which we are still awaiting to take place anytime now.

LEMON: I would imagine not many of our viewers, Richard, remember Pan Am and Lockerbie. But I'm old enough to remember that. So, thank you for reminding us of that. But it's perfect timing to bring in right now and get information about the patients, what we know. And this is San Francisco General Hospital. Again, this is just in the CNN. Ten patients and they're saying all of these patients are in critical condition. Five patients currently being evaluated, no conditions yet. They are expecting 15 additional patients. That is according to a spokesperson there. St. Francis Memorial Hospital, three patients, and that's according to a spokesperson there. California Pacific Medical Center. St. Luke's campus. Five patients. And then at Stanford Hospital five patients as well. So a number of patients there, you can see and that's going to be updated. I'm not going to venture to tell you how many and give you a specific number, because again some hospitals say they are expecting additional patients, as many as 15.

That is a site of that news conference that you're looking at in San Francisco. The mayor expected to be there. Other local officials as well as airline and airport officials as well, to update us on this particular situation.

Two runways have been reopened at San Francisco International Airport. We have to take a quick break, but you will get this entire news conference if we have to come out of the break in order to get it to you in full. Stand by. We'll be right back.


LEMON: We're following breaking news here on CNN. A plane crash at the San Francisco International Airport and that is the plane that crash landed on approach just over three hours ago in San Francisco. It is an Asiana airliner. An Asiana airplane. A Boeing 777 on its way from Seoul, South Korea to the San Francisco International Airport when it crash landed. The picture you're looking at now is from someone who was onboard that plane and he took that picture as he was leaving the plane to safety. Other people who are on that plane also took pictures as they were leaving as well. Some of the passengers who left the plane said they felt it coming. They thought the landing went down too quickly on approach, and just before - and landed just before he should have and tried to get that airplane back up in the air and it was too late. That is according to people onboard the plane. But again, the National Transportation Safety Board, the FAA, no official word yet on what might have caused this crash. And that will happen in the days to come. The NTSB holding a press conference saying that they are still in route. Their go team is there, but they are still in route with the other members of their go team to try to figure out exactly what happened here. That is the press conference that is going to happen in San Francisco; that is a picture of the room where that press conference is going to happen. You see the podium there, you see all the microphones, and the reporters, producers, photographers all huddled around awaiting the mayor and other city officials to come out and give that press conference.

In the meantime, helping me out here, of course, I am in New York. Richard Quest is in London. Rene Marsh is in Washington. Dr. Todd Francis joining me here as well in New York. He is an aviation expert and also the founder of And also in Washington is Robert Francis who is the former vice chairman of the NTSB and investigator as well and Diana Magnay is in Seoul, South Korea.

So, I want to go now to Robert Francis. Mr. Francis, you know, we've been talking to you and to Mr. -- Dr. Curtis here about the people who are fanned out across this air field still looking for debris although two of the runways at the airport remain open or have been reopened, I should say.

FRANCIS: Well, the debris is going to either be on the territory of the runway that they have. I mean the runways are separated by water. So the debris from this aircraft will not be in a position to interfere with operations on the other runways that they've opened.

LEMON: OK. So, Mr. Curtis, Dr. Curtis, I should say, and you're listening the runways - the runways that are opened, he says they are far enough away where it won't disturb this, but I mean there is a lot of blowing and there are big engines on these airplanes and to reopen this quickly some people may question that.

CURTIS: Well, the San Francisco airport has a layout where you have two pairs of parallel runways that basically cross each other like a giant X. And where the debris was, it stopped short of where those runways cross. So it's conceivable they can open up the two crossing runways without even being close to the debris field. So, depending on the weather conditions, aircraft size, et cetera, they could be well away from where the problem is.

LEMON: Again, not to speculate, but you have your assessment as an investigator, as an aviation expert, as to what happened when you see that plane so close to the water. What is your assessment?

CURTIS: My assessment is that for whatever reason, the aircraft touched down well short of its intent to touch down. Typically, that point is several hundred feet past the beginning of the runway. And as you saw there was debris past the end of the runway, past the under run area, up to the shore line where the water meets the runway, the rocks in the runway. It is possible it could have had pieces of the aircraft very close to the water when it first hit that seawall.

LEMON: And you are saying nothing - I asked Mr. Quest the same question, there is nothing unusual about landing at San Francisco's International Airport.

CURTIS: No. On most particular runways, in fact, if you have an aerial map of that runway, there is actually several miles of open water before you get to the runway end. So, there are no obstructions, no tall buildings, no radio towers, nothing that would cause the aircraft to turn left or right before that final approach. And it was a relatively decent weather day. So, they would have had very good visual acquisition of the runway.

LEMON: And when you're talking about length of runway, because we - as a passenger you know if an airport has a short or a long runway just by the way it feels when you, if the plane breaks immediately when you land. You know that runway is shorter. And that happens at LaGuardia, it may happen in Washington from time to time and other airports throughout the country, but San Francisco I would imagine that would not be the case.

CURTIS: No. In fact, the runway 28 Left is actually just short of two miles long, which is one of the longer runways here in the United States. So, runway length would not have been a problem.

LEMON: And the weather, we don't know, but according to meteorologists the winds weren't high. It was a clear day. And even our Dana Bash, who was in route to the airport and came upon the crash, as she was going to the airport. She said it's not a cloud in the sky.

CURTIS: And if you look at the pictures of the crash and the smoke coming up, you can clearly see that the smoke, although, it was going away at a bit of an angle, there was some wind. It was by no means a gale force cross wind or that sort of thing that would have been -- made it dangerous to land.

LEMON: OK. Stand by everyone. Again we're awaiting a press conference that should happen any time here on CNN. It's with the city officials in San Francisco as well as other airline experts and airport experts to give us the information on exactly what they know at this point about this horrific crash at the San Francisco International Airport. Details on the other side of this break.


LEMON: Breaking news here on CNN. Live pictures now of that airplane, that crash at San Francisco International Airport earlier today. A Boeing 777. It is Asiana Airlines flight number 214 with more than 200 people onboard the plane at the time and at least 16 crew members. They're looking in the water just shy of the runway there to see if they can find any debris and you can see that those pictures happened earlier. I want to get to Patrick Smith, who is a pilot air travel pilot, air travel columnist and author of "Cockpit Confidential." Thank you for joining us. As we await this press conference let's talk a little bit here.

You have flown into this airport a number of times I understand. What is it like?

PATRICK SMITH, PILOT, AUTHOR OF "COCKPIT CONFIDENTIAL": I have. I've flown into San Francisco many times. You know, I don't think the airport is going to turn out to have much or anything to do with this. The arrival pattern that they were flying, the runway they were arriving on, those things shouldn't matter. Either an approach is stable and safe or it's not. And a few minutes ago, you used the words "horrific crash" to describe this incident. And I want to take a minute to kind of put this in some perspective. I think this is very important not to diminish the seriousness of what happened, but as we know right now, the death toll is somewhere in the low single digits and - and meanwhile there hasn't been a large scale fatal accident in this country involving a major carrier in 11 years. And I'm including that one in this. There is going to be a tendency in the aftermath of this accident to hype things up and then really season this as a calamity, but in the bigger perspective, the bigger picture, air travel has never been safer than it is right now. This accident notwithstanding.

You know, here is something like 3,000 commercial flights taking off and landing in the U.S. every day, almost all of them flying successfully and safely. And I don't want that to get lost in the follow-up to this accident. Tragic as it was, it was not a major calamity, an air disaster, and like we used to see a lot more frequently back in the '70s and in the '80s and so on. Air disasters are much less frequent now than they've been - than they were in years past. And I think that's lost on a lot of people when the media tends to grab on to these incidents and then just play it for days and days.

LEMON: Yeah, and listen, not to get (inaudible) descriptors (ph) here, but anyone who can look at this footage from the airplane and we still don't know how many people are injured or have died. Possibly, and we haven't reported any deaths here on CNN.

SMITH: Sure.

LEMON: But you can't look at these pictures and describe it any other way but horrific. I mean if I was on this aircraft and if I was watching it, it's horrifying to imagine. And so I understand what you're saying, but it is still horrifying any time there is an accident of this magnitude. What happens from here?

SMITH: Well, about the worst thing we can do right now is start playing fast and loose with what we think caused this accident, because almost always the initial theories turn out to be wrong. We just don't know. And investigations into these sorts of things can go on for months. And it could turn out really to be almost anything. What I see here as an airline pilot is a plane landing short of the runway. You know, that's not why it crashed. That's the hint that something that (inaudible) had gone wrong prior to that. Whether it turns out to be crew error or some kind of mechanical function remains to be seen. Well, we just don't know. And it is just not a good idea right now to be, you know, trying all these possibilities out there because it could be almost anything.

LEMON: Yeah. And that's what everyone -- every person here on CNN has said the same thing. We don't want to speculate as to what happened.


LEMON: And you as well said the same thing, Mr. Curtis. You said that you believed that it stopped short. It came in short. But it doesn't mean that that's the cause of the crash.

SMITH: Correct. I mean it could have been some sort of engine trouble. And when I say that, again, this is me just talking off the top of my head, by itself it can't cause an airplane to crash, but an improper response to one could. It's unlikely but it could happen. We just don't know. That is something to look at and then so are a lot of other things. Meanwhile, you know, one thing here ...


LEMON: Thanks ....

SMITH: The fact that it was a Korean airliner. And ...

LEMON: Patrick Smith, thank you very much, Patrick. We appreciate it. We'll keep you on. Stand by. But I just want to update our viewers here and tell them what they are looking at. These are pictures obviously earlier closer to the time when this happened. And we want to tell you that there is a news conference that will happen at any moment in San Francisco. At that news conference will be the police chief, the fire chief, and the mayor of San Francisco. And they are getting ready now. As soon as they approach that podium we'll bring it to you here on CNN. We do want to tell you, though, 291 passengers onboard that plane, 16 crew members when it came in and crash landed at San Francisco International Airport. A number of people have been taken to local hospitals. We're going to continue to update you. In the meantime, I'm Don Lemon here in New York. I'm going to step aside just for a couple of hours, so that Mr. Wolf Blitzer can guide you through the next two hours of this breaking news story. I'm going to see you back here at 9:00 P.M. Eastern for a special coverage of this crash landing at San Francisco International Airport. In the meantime, here's Wolf.