NEW YORK, March 6 – An airliner skidded off a runway at New York’s La Guardia airport Thursday and slid to a halt just yards from frigid waters, as a snow storm battered the US coast from Texas to Boston. Heavy snow was falling as Delta flight 1086 from Atlanta careered off the runway, ploughed up an embankment and demolished a fence after its late morning landing. New York firefighters said 24 people suffered non-life-threatening injuries, including three who were transported from the scene. The McDonnell Douglas MD-88 was carrying 127 passengers and five crew.

Video footage showed shaken passengers climbing gingerly out of the plane through an exit over a wing and trudging through thick snow. The plane’s nose jutted through the fence, suspended above the icy East River.  Passengers’ recounted panic as the plane failed to break after landing.  “We knew something was wrong because you didn’t feel the wheels take and we started to skid,” Jared Faellaci told CNN.

“I’m definitely shaken up, I cried, shed some tears, and obviously I’m just reflective and grateful.” Another passenger, Jaime Primak, tweeted: “We just crash landed at LGA. I’m terrified. Please,” she wrote. She added later: “We have all been evacuated. Everyone is safe. Thank you for your prayers. God is good.” It was the most dramatic incident on a day in which a huge winter storm forced thousands of flight cancellations and disrupted life across a broad swath of the United States.

In Washington DC, government workers were ordered to stay home, schools were closed, and museums shuttered for the day as icy rain turned to heavy snow. Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York were expected to get as much as eight inches of snow, with temperatures dipping well below average in much of the region. Airports experienced travel chaos, with more than 4,500 flights cancelled by Thursday afternoon, spelling travel misery for many.

Forecasters had warned of low visibility in New York, and some 40 percent of flights had been cancelled at La Guardia before the accident, according to New York Port Authority executive director Patrick Foye did not say what caused the accident, only that the runway was recently cleared.  “That runway had been ploughed literally minutes before, and other pilots had reported good breaking action,” he told reporters.  Foye said the plane skidded more than 4,500 feet (1,400 metres) down the runway and that the aircraft’s emergency chutes did not deploy after it hit the embankment.

But he assured there was no risk of it coming into contact with water.  “The plane did not make contact with the water, happily that was never a risk today,” he said.  Delta, which said that passengers were ferried to the terminal on buses afterwards, said in a statement: “Our priority is ensuring our customers and crew members are safe.” The airline – which received the plane new in 1987 – vowed to “work with all authorities and stakeholders to look into what happened in this incident.”

There was a “minor fuel spill” after the crash that has been contained, according to Foye.  Among the passengers was Larry Donnell, a player with the New York Giants NFL team. “We were all shocked and alarmed when the plane started to skid, but most importantly, as far as I know, all of the passengers and flight crew were able to exit the plane safely,” he said in a statement. The National Weather Service said 65 million people were under a winter storm warning, and other another 29 million were under winter weather advisory.

In Kentucky, Governor Steve Beshear declared a state of emergency for the state, where some cities were pounded with 20 inches of snow.  The southern United States was not spared, with Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico all facing weather warnings. Forecasters said the storm’s scope was not uncommon. “For this time of year, to be impacting people in the relative deep south, it’s a fairly unusual event,” NWS meteorologist Bruce Terry told AFP.

He said southern states, not accustomed to ice and snow conditions, might not be as prepared as some of winter-hardened northerners.  Washington and Baltimore were expecting up to eight inches of snow, with temperatures in the capital dropping to 10 Fahrenheit (-12 Celsius) by evening. “Significant amounts of snow are forecast that will make travel dangerous. Only travel in an emergency,” the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration cautioned for Washington and Baltimore.  The storm was expected to last until early evening, Terry said, but warned cold temperatures were likely to remain. — AFP

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