Congregants pray during services at West Valley Christian Church, where… (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles…)
SAN FRANCISCO — Wang Linjia and Ye Mengyuan, 16-year-old girls from the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang, were supposed to arrive at West Valley Christian Church and School on Monday for a three-week American adventure.
They were supposed to work on their English skills at the West Hills church-run summer camp in the mornings and tour local universities come afternoon. They were supposed to live with host families in the San Fernando Valley and go sightseeing on weekends. They were supposed to tour the Bay Area before heading south.
They were supposed to have fun.
But on Saturday morning, Asiana Airlines Flight 214 crash-landed at San Francisco International Airport with 307 passengers and crew members on board — including Linjia, Mengyuan and 32 other students from Jiangshan Middle School and their teacher.
Linjia and Mengyuan, whose bodies were found a mile apart, were the dramatic crash's sole fatalities, although 182 other people were taken to hospitals after the incident. At least two of those were paralyzed with spinal injuries, and eight remained in critical condition Sunday, hospital officials said.
One of the dead girls was found on the runway, and officials said she probably was ejected when the Boeing 777 crash-landed before bursting into flames. The other, whose body was found closer to the wreckage, may have been run over by an emergency vehicle responding to the crash. Officials have not said which girl was which.
San Francisco Fire Department spokeswoman Mindy Talmadge confirmed that one girl's body "did have injuries that were consistent with having been run over by a vehicle.... There were multiple agencies on the field yesterday, and the [National Transportation Safety Board] is conducting a thorough investigation of the entire accident scene."
San Mateo County Coroner Robert J. Foucrault said an autopsy will determine the cause of death. His office is coordinating with the Chinese Consulate to obtain dental and fingerprint records for the two girls.
"What we are trying to do is determine whether this young lady died of an airline crash or of a secondary incident," Foucrault said in an interview. "If it does involve a secondary incident, the people who may be involved should be aware of it, as well as the family."
Flight 214 originated in Shanghai and stopped in Seoul en route to San Francisco. Asiana Airlines — whose president apologized for the accident during a televised news conference in Seoul — did not identify the two girls until early Sunday morning, more than 14 hours after the crash.
Those post-crash hours were frantic.
Kevin Cheng, who works for KNC Holidays Transportation, was supposed to meet the Jiangshan Middle School contingent and escort them to a Marriott hotel in San Jose. That's where a tour bus was scheduled to pick them up Sunday and drive them to West Hills, a neighborhood in the city of Los Angeles in the west San Fernando Valley.
Moments after the crash, the teacher traveling with the Jiangshan group called Cheng on his cellphone to say that she and most of the students had escaped the burning plane. But the group had become separated, she told him, and she still was trying to find three of the students.
'"We're missing three, we're missing three' — she kept calling and telling me that, begging me to help find them," Cheng said in Mandarin.
He jotted the names on a scrap of paper. He ran through the crowds of reporters and worried onlookers. He asked the airport to broadcast the three names. After Cheng had been at SFO more than four hours, his boss called him and told him he could leave.
Throughout the night, Cheng said, reporters from China called asking for news. Parents of the children on the plane were anxious and keeping vigil at home, they told him.
The Chinese Consulate in San Francisco released the names of the 141 Chinese citizens on board the flight in small batches as the passengers were confirmed safe. When Cheng woke up Sunday morning, he combed the alerts on the consulate's website, searching for the names he had written down the day before.
Only one of the three students had been confirmed safe. He read the fifth alert when it popped up on his screen, searching for the other two.
"Not here," he said during an interview from his home in San Jose. "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 here."
The other two names he had written down were Linjia and Mengyuan.
As the investigation into the cause of the crash continued Sunday, the flight's last moments became clearer.
Wen Zhang was sitting in row 40 with her husband and their 4-year-old son. The little boy, she said, couldn't wait to stay in an American hotel. Her sister's family was in row 39. The group was planning a road trip: Los Angeles; Las Vegas; Sedona, Ariz.