A driver for the transportation company that was responsible for picking up Chinese students at the airport in San Francisco described a frantic scene after the Asiana Airlines crash that killed two 16-year-old students and injured more than 180 other passengers.
In an interview Sunday with The Times, Kevin Cheng of KNC Holidays Transportation based in San Francisco said he was waiting at the arrival gates of San Francisco International Airport to pick up 34 students and a teacher from Jiangshan Middle School in China’s Zhejiang province.
His job was to drive them to a Marriott hotel in San Jose, where a tour bus was to pick them up the following day and drive them toward Los Angeles, the group’s final destination.
Moments after the crash, the teacher called him on a cellphone to say that she and most of the students had escaped the burning plane. The group was separated when they got out, and she was still trying to locate three of her students.
“We’re missing three, we’re missing three -- she kept calling and telling me that, begging me to help find them,” Cheng said. He jotted the three names down on a piece of scrap paper, and ran through crowds of reporters and worried onlookers, and asked the airport to broadcast the three names. Two of the names that he wrote down were Wang Lin Jia and Ye Meng Yuan, which Asiana Airlines later confirmed in a statement were the two passengers who died in the crash.
The students were scheduled to arrive at West Valley Christian Church and School in West Hills, church officials said.
“I can only imagine as a parent how they feel,” Pastor Glenn Kirby said Sunday of the victims’ families. “I grieve with them even though I’ve never met them.... My heart is heavy but also compassionate.”
Cheng said he had to call the hotel and rearrange all the transportation. “Everything was a mess by then,” he said in Mandarin. “There was so much we had to think about yesterday.”
After waiting at the airport for more than four hours, his boss called him and said he could leave. “He told me, ‘The situation was very serious,’” Cheng said. “I didn’t know what to make of it. But thinking back, his tone was very, very somber."
Cheng said numerous reporters from China called him throughout the night. Reporters from the province of another school group called him asking if he had heard anything. The reporter told him parents were extremely anxious at home and keeping vigil as they gathered the limited information they could see on TV.
The Chinese consulate in San Francisco has been slowly releasing the names of Chinese citizens who they have confirmed are safe. When Cheng woke up on Sunday morning, he combed each alert, searching for the three names on the scrap paper he still had in his hand. One of the three names was on the safe list, he said.
He read the fifth alert, which had another handful of names. “Not here,” he said. “Sixth batch, seventh batch, eighth batch.” he mumbled out loud as he read through the names. “Wow, that’s it so far. They’re not on here.”
He went back through all eight alerts and counted the number of students confirmed safe from the middle school. He paused, still trying to process what he was seeing. “I don’t know what to say.”
Asiana Flight 214 originated in Shanghai and stopped in Seoul before flying to San Francisco.
The cause of the crash was unclear. Federal investigators were looking into whether the plane clipped a seawall separating the runway from San Francisco Bay, according to a person involved in the investigation.
Investigators have begun to examine the flight and voice recorders from the Asiana Airlines jetliner, trying to determine what happened during the aircraft’s failed approach to the runway.
The recorders were flown to the the National Transportation Safety Board’s laboratory in Washington, where the data were being downloaded and examined, a spokeswoman said.
Two of four runways at San Francisco International Airport remained closed Sunday.