Catherine Malone Habas and her family were 20 minutes from landing at SFO, en route home from a two-week vacation in Cape Cod, when the plane headed into an unexpected circle and the pilot came on the public address system.
"He said, 'Everything went smoothly for 5 hours and 40 minutes, but we've been put into a holding pattern for at least 20 minutes because of a disabled plane at SFO,' " Malone Habas recounted.
Twenty minutes later, the pilot came on wagain with a short message for the passengers of United flight 1699: "We've been diverted to Sacramento. We're landing in 15 minutes."
That was when David Habas looked at the television screen and saw that a plane crash had occurred at their destination airport, less than 30 minutes earlier. The couple's first thought was for their sons.
"The footage we were watching was live," Malone Habas said. "We knew there had been a crash. We turned the screens off so our children, who are 8 and 5, wouldn't become alarmed. Then we circled for a while before we could land in Sacramento, because other planes were doing the same thing."
Once the plane got to the gate at the Sacramento airport, it sat there for another half hour before crew arrived to help the passengers depart. People were calm throughout the lengthy diversion process, she said, and the pilot and flight attendants did not discuss the crash.
"But once we landed and could turn on our phones, there was the scramble for people to figure out how to get from Sacramento to the final destination," said the public relations consultant, who lives with her family in the East Bay town of Lafayette.
David Habas had raced to the rental car counter and managed to book a car, while a hopeful Malone Habas and her sons went to the baggage carousel, just in case.
Malone Habas said that at first United staff told the passengers that "if your destination is San Francisco, you're free to go, but your bags won't be available for quite some time." Eventually the airline began offering shuttle bus service to SFO for the diverted travelers from flight 1699.
The South Korean Deputy Counsel General Hong Sung Wok said that Asiana Airlines officials told him that one person was killed and 20 to 30 people injured in the crash at San Francisco International Airport.
"We are very shocked," Sung Wok said, speaking with a Times reporter in the arrival area of the international terminal. "We have to take care of this sad situation. We will make all efforts to take care of these families. We also express our sorrows to the victims."
He said that airline officials told him there were 299 people on board the plane, with that number possibly including crew members. He said he was told most people were safe.
Angela Chung Soon Lee, a representative of the Korean American Federation USA, an association of community groups, said a friend had called her to tell her about the plane crash. Lee, who was also at the airport, said, "we are just looking to see how we can help those here and those in the hospital. We have the Korean community here all together we can help."