The flight originated in Shanghai, China, stopped over in Seoul, South Korea, before making the nearly 11-hour trip to San Francisco. The South Korea-based airline said four South Korean pilots were on board, three of whom were described as ‘‘skilled.’’
Among the travelers were citizens of China, South Korean, the United States, Canada, India, Japan, Vietnam and France. There were at least 70 Chinese students and teachers heading to summer camps, according to Chinese authorities.
Fei Xiong, a Chinese passenger , was traveling to California so she could take her 8-year-old son to Disneyland. The pair was sitting in the back half of the plane. Xiong said her son sensed something was wrong.
‘‘My son told me: ‘The plane will fall down, it’s too close to the sea,'’’ she said. ‘‘I told him: ‘Baby, it’s OK, we'll be fine.'’’
When the plane hit the ground, oxygen masks dropped down, said Xu Da, a product manager at an Internet company in Hangzhou, China, who was sitting with his wife and teenage son near the back of the plane. When he stood up, he said he could see sparking — perhaps from exposed electrical wires.
He turned and could see the tail where the galley was torn away, leaving a gaping hole through which they could see the runway. Once on the tarmac, they watched the plane catch fire, and firefighters hose it down.
‘‘I just feel lucky,’’ said Xu, whose family suffered some cuts and have neck and back pain.
In the chaotic moments after the landing, when baggage was tumbling from the overhead bins onto passengers and people all around her were screaming, Wen Zhang grabbed her 4-year-old son, who hit the seat in front of him and broke his leg.
Spotting a hole at the back of the jumbo jet where the bathroom had been, she carried her boy to safety.
‘‘I had no time to be scared,’’ she said.
Authorities immediately closed the airport and rescuers rushed to the scene. A United Airlines pilot radioed the control tower, saying: ‘‘We see people ... that need immediate attention. They are alive and walking around.’’
‘‘Think you said people are just walking outside the airplane right now?’’ the controller replied.
‘‘Yes,’’ answered the pilot of United Flight 885. ‘‘Some people, it looks like, are struggling.’’
At the crash scene, police officers knives up to crew members inside the burning wreckage so they could cut away passengers’ seat belts. Passengers jumped down emergency slides, escaping from billowing smoke that rose high above the bay. Some passengers who escaped doused themselves with water from the bay, presumably to cool burns, authorities said.
By the time the flames were out, much of the top of the fuselage had burned away. The tail section was gone, with pieces of it scattered across the beginning of the runway.
Foucrault, the coroner, said senior San Francisco Fire Department officials notified him and his staff at the crash site on Saturday that one of the 16-year-olds who was kilkled may have been struck on the runaway. Foucrault said an autopsy he expects to be completed by Monday will involve determining whether the girl’s death was caused by injuries suffered in the crash or ‘‘a secondary incident.’’
He said he did not get a close enough look at the victims on Saturday to know whether they had external injuries.
Foucrault said one of the bodies was found on the tarmac near where the plane’s tail broke off when it slammed into the runway. The other was found on the left side of the plane about 30 feet away from where the jetliner came to rest after it skidded down the runway.
Lowy reported from Washington, D.C. Associated Press writers Terry Collins, Terry Chea and Sudhin Thanawala in San Francisco, David Koenig in Dallas and Louise Watt in Beijing contributed to this report.