NEW YORK — A Delta jetliner landing at LaGuardia Airport in a driving snowstorm on Thursday skidded off a runway and crashed through a chain-link fence, its nose coming to rest on a berm at the edge of an icy bay.
Six people were hurt in the midday accident, which authorities say came just minutes after the runway had been plowed. It was a near-tragic reminder of what pilots have long known about LaGuardia: Its relatively short runways and waterfront location leave little room for error, especially in bad weather.
Passenger Malcolm Duckett, a marketing executive from Georgia who was seated near the left wing, called the landing "scary" and said he was thankful the plane didn't end up in Flushing Bay. He said he and other passengers were told they had to exit over the right wing because one of the doors was too close to the water.
"We landed pretty hard. I could see the damage to the wing. It was pretty torn up," Duckett said. "It was riding across a fence for 10 seconds, and once we landed, we landed in the snow."
Another passenger on the flight from Atlanta, Charles Runel, said the landing "felt like fishtailing in a car. But in a much larger car."
Passengers trudged through the snow in an orderly line after climbing off the plane. Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines Inc. said they were bused to a terminal.
At the time of the crash landing, snow was falling and a northeast wind was blowing at 9 mph, with visibility at a quarter of a mile, the National Weather Service said.
LaGuardia, known for its disconcertingly close proximity to the bay, which swamped the berm during Superstorm Sandy and flooded its two runways, is one of the nation's most congested airports. It's also one of the most difficult ones at which to land: Its close proximity to three other busy airports means pilots have to make a series of tight turns to line up with its runways while also going through their normal landing checklists.
The Delta flight was landing on LaGuardia's main runway, about 7,000 feet long and 150 feet wide. On the right side of the runway are a taxiway and terminals. On the left, where the plane ended up, are the berm and the bay.
LaGuardia's runways are "reasonably short" but still safe, said former US Airways pilot John M. Cox, who's now CEO of consultancy Safety Operating Systems.
At airports with longer runways, pilots will glide a few feet above the runway and gently touch down. At LaGuardia, Cox said, "you put the airplane on the ground and stop it."
The runway had been plowed just minutes before the Delta landing, and two other pilots had reported good braking conditions shortly before, according to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the region's main airports and other transit hubs.
There was an eerie sense of calm onboard Flight 1086 as it veered off the runway with 125 passengers and five crew members aboard, passengers said. Everyone was silent as the plane bounced and slid, but some children started crying after it came to a stop. It was only then that everyone realized how close they had come to plunging into freezing saltwater.
Among the passengers was New York Giants tight end Larry Donnell, who said he felt blessed to be safe afterward.
There's no rule about how much snow or ice leads to a runway closing. Instead, the Federal Aviation Administration requires airports to close runways if weather starts to deteriorate to the extent the airport cannot maintain adequate runway conditions or if pilots report trouble braking.
The Port Authority's executive director, Patrick Foye, said the Delta pilot did everything he could to slow the aircraft. Both runways closed after the crash, but one reopened about three hours later. The plane briefly leaked fuel at about a gallon a minute.
The National Transportation Safety Board said it was sending an investigator to retrieve the plane's flight data and cockpit voice recorders and to document damage to the plane.
LaGuardia has had its share of planes mishaps. In July 2013, the front landing gear of a Southwest Airlines flight collapsed right after it touched down, sending it skidding before it came to a halt. Ten passengers were injured.