SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Seconds after the July 6 crash of an Asiana Airlines flight at San Francisco airport, passenger Hyun Seob Oh witnessed an unimaginable horror: an emergency escape slide exploded inside the cabin, enveloping his wife, Asiana flight attendant Sook Young Hyun.
He could see her legs jutting out from the slide at an odd angle, wriggling slightly, as he and other passengers rushed to help. But there was nothing to cut the slide away with, no immediate means to free her.
“I was so scared,” he recalls. “She could die.”
His wife of four years is hospitalized, with burns, pneumonia from smoke inhalation, and fractures in her spine. Unconscious for two days, Hyun will remain hospitalized for several more weeks, 31-year-old Oh said in interviews. While she has taken her first few halting steps, recovery is expected to be slow and painful.
Although the Asiana crash was miraculous in many ways, sparing the lives of more than 300 on board the flight, Hyun is one of a group of critically injured passengers experiencing repercussions that will extend for months, perhaps years.
The Asiana plane missed the San Francisco runway, losing its tail and landing gear as it skidded down the runway.
Three people died and two passengers remain in critical condition in San Francisco General Hospital.
Even for passengers who experienced few or no physical injuries, mental trauma could endure indefinitely, medical professionals say. That’s especially true for a case like Oh’s.
Jose Maldonado, who directs the medical psychotherapy clinic at Stanford University School of Medicine, said that in general, when people go through traumatic events where they see family members suffer serious injuries, the witnessing family member is at higher risk of developing post traumatic stress disorder compared to others who go through the event.
Oh, who joined his wife on the trip so the couple could enjoy a long weekend in San Francisco, recalls feeling a large jolt as the plane landed. He looked over to his wife, who was sitting in a jump seat at the front of the plane. The couple made eye contact, and she smiled at him, he says.
But seconds later, the slide exploded over her, pushing the seat back to a folded position with Hyun inside, he says. Oh did not see anyone take action to deploy the slide.
After the plane stopped, Oh ran to her side. Through a crack between the slide and the interior cabin wall, where Hyun was pinned, Oh could see his wife’s face, flattened by the slide and turning grey.
Over and over, he called her name, “Sook Young! Sook Young!” But she did not respond.
Eventually, Oh says, a pilot found a hammer and used it to deflate the slide and free Hyun, who appeared unconscious. Oh recalls undoing her seat belt only to have her crumple into his arms. He put her on his back, piggyback style, took her across the aisle to a working escape slide, and jumped.
Suddenly able to speak, his wife urged him to get moving. “She was telling me, ‘Run! Run away!’” Oh says, recalling how happy he felt that his wife could talk. He ran, Hyun still on his back, about 100 to 150 meters, he says, and then stopped to wait for help. His wife complained of terrible pain.
“I was telling her, ‘Be patient,’” Oh recalls. “The ambulance is on its way.”
When emergency responders arrived - he can’t remember how long that took - they put her on a stretcher and loaded her into an ambulance. Oh jumped in too. But the responders told him he couldn’t come along for the ride to San Francisco General Hospital, he says.
Instead, he says, he was bused to the terminal to begin an excruciating wait of 4-5 hours at the airport, where he stayed close to another passenger, Eugene Rah.
Oh tried several times to call the hospital, he and Rah say, but the staff told him they could not immediately check to see if Hyun was there. After a few hours, a staffer called him back to tell him Hyun was at the hospital, in intensive care.
He was unable to leave the airport immediately as officials told him they needed passengers to stick around to fill out paperwork and potentially be interviewed about the crash, Oh said.
During the wait, he consoled himself by remembering how chatty his wife was during their stretch on the tarmac.
“I was thinking in the airport, she was trying to talk with me, and she was okay,” he recalls.
He was also thinking about his family back in Korea — his parents, his sister and, most of all, his and Hyun’s 20-month-old daughter, whom they had left with Hyun’s sister.
Finally, a federal agent offered to take Oh to the hospital, according to Rah.
When he reached his wife’s bedside, she was again unconscious, breathing through a ventilator, with tubes trailing into her mouth, he says.
“Her face was very red,” he says. “All her body was bruised. I realized she was very sick.”
A nurse ticked off the injuries Oh couldn’t see, explaining that she had fractured her back and had injuries to her lungs from breathing in fumes.
Although Asiana offered Oh a room at the Crowne Plaza Hotel near the airport, where many crash victims were staying, Oh preferred to stay with his wife. A nurse found him a reclining chair and he set up camp next to her bed.
For the next two days, he sat there, unable to sleep. When his wife woke up the Monday after the crash, she couldn’t talk at first, but traced their daughter’s name on his hand, he says.
The next day, she was moved out of intensive care. The couple were able to call their daughter several times, Oh said, although the toddler cannot say much beyond “Mommy” and “Daddy.” He says he feels grateful she is too young to know what happened to her parents.
Throughout the ordeal, Asiana has been helpful, Oh says. Hours after the crash, Asiana staff in Korea reached out to Hyun’s family to offer them free seats to San Francisco and lodging in a hotel so they could visit Hyun. Asiana staff have come to the hospital every day to offer him aid, he says.
Oh said he and his wife discussed their reluctance to board an airplane ever again, but they both wanted to go home, and knew they had no choice.
Hyun liked her job and the accompanying travel, Oh says, but no one in the family wants her to work as a flight attendant anymore. They have yet to raise the topic with Hyun.
Hospital staff said that ideally Hyun should not fly, but they decided to let her go if she could remain flat during flight, Oh says. Asiana spokesman Ki Won Suh said that Hyun, who has worked for the airline for 12 years, would have a flat seat for the flight, and the airline sent a nurse to take care of Hyun during the journey.
Oh used vouchers given to him by the Red Cross to buy his wife new clothes for the return journey. The couple left San Francisco on Thursday afternoon.
But even now, they won’t be able to return to normal life. On arrival in Korea Friday, an ambulance was lined up to take Hyun directly to another hospital.
Oh says he is grateful. “I just want to come back home,” he says. “I want her alive.”
Reporting By Sarah McBride and Angela Moon; Editing by Jonathan Weber and Claudia Parsons