127 Passengers, 5 Crew Members Evacuated; 24 Non-Life Threatening Injuries Reported

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — Officials were investigating to find out exactly what happened late Thursday, after a Delta Airlines flight skidded and crashed through a fence as it landed at LaGuardia Airport.

As CBS2’s Matt Kozar reported, two industrial cranes late Thursday were tasked with the job of lifting the 140,000-pound jet plane, which remained precariously perched on the metal security fence where it touched down several hours earlier.

The plane was being moved away from the fence as of just before 11 p.m., CBS2’s Joe Biermann reported.

The accident happened just after 11 a.m. on Runway 13 as Delta Flight 1086 was coming in from Atlanta.

While it was snowing at the time, two other planes had landed safely in the snow earlier, CBS2’s Tony Aiello reported.

Photos and video from the scene showed the MD88 aircraft sitting in the snow with its nose through a fence near the water. Passengers could be seen exiting the plane off the wing and trudging through the snow.

Another few feet, and the plane would have been in the chilly waters of Flushing Bay.

“The plane came down and it slid, and then it took a spin to the left, and we looked out the window, and we could see the wing was hitting a fence somewhere. And then it just was tumbly and the plane came to a stop,” said passenger Margaret Maney.

“It felt like a regular landing until it started sliding,” added passenger Naquithan Taylor. “I realized that it wasn’t going well when we hit a stop, and then I seen water kind of coming up and gasoline running from the wing.”

“We thought that we were in the water, everybody thought it was in the water and then they opened the back door and all the snow and things fell out and then the firemen came around helping everybody,” another passenger said.

Jared Faelacci took a photo from his seat in first class.

“The wheels did not grab. They didn’t take, and immediately, we heard the spinning,” Saelacci said. “We felt like we skidded for 20 seconds… I grabbed the seat in front of me, started to pray.”

In an air traffic control recording archived on the website LiveATC.net, two people can be heard talking about the incident as it unfolded.

Voice 1: “Tower you have an aircraft off 3-1 on the north vehicle service road, please advise, crash rescue, LaGuardia Airport is closed at this time.”

Voice 1: “Tower are you talking to the flight crew of MD-80?”

Voice 2: “I’m calling up 1086, but I’m getting no response.”

Voice 1: “OK sir, if he comes up he is leaking fuel on the left side of his aircraft heavily.”

Voice2: “You said he’s leaking fuel?”

Voice 1: “Affirm, his wing is ruptured.”

At the time of the accident, it was snowing with about 3.5 inches already on the ground at LaGuardia, CBS2’s Lonnie Quinn reported. Visibility was low – at about a quarter mile – and the cloud ceiling was at about 1,100 feet.

It was unclear Thursday afternoon if the incident was weather-related, but Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Executive Director Patrick Foye said the runway had been cleared of snow shortly before the plane landed.

“This particular runway had been plowed shortly before the incident, and pilots on other planes reported good braking action,” Foye said at a news conference Thursday afternoon.

“I think the pilot did everything he could to slow the aircraft down. Obviously the pilot and the co-pilot’s good efforts were reflected in the fact that there were only minor injuries,” he said.

Speaking to CBS2’s Maurice DuBois and Kristine Johnson late Thursday afternoon, aviation expert Phil Derner said it was too early to speculate what was to blame for the accident.

“We don’t really know exactly what it was. We can’t just say it was weather, because braking action was reported good by aircraft just before this one,” he said. “The visibility was legal and totally OK with all FAA regulations and requirements. There was a slight tail wind – a slight cross-wind – but nothing out of limitations or anything that that aircraft shouldn’t have been able to handle.”

Even before the accident, the Port Authority had called all hands on deck to deal with the fast-falling snow, CBS2’s Weijia Jiang reported.

“It was Level 5. We are at Level 5 staffing – full staffing today – and with Snow Condition 5,” Foye said.

Level 5 is the most serious condition at the airport, but was apparently not bad enough to close the runway.

Runway 13, where the accident happened, is used less often than the other runways at LaGuardia. But Derner said Runway 13 is not different in any significant way from the other runways, and it is used less often due to airspace concerns.

“One part of Runway 13 is that when they use that – the aircraft coming into New York, they’ll start interfering with other airports in the area. New York City airspace is very tight – very congested – and when they’re using Runway 13, Newark Airport is unable to bring in arrivals from the south,” Derner said.

As the snow fell Thursday morning, airport crews were working to plow the runways, and only using runways that were already plowed and clear. It just so happened that Runway 13 was the best option at the time of the accident given the conditions, Derner said.

“There’s no significant safety hazard at all in using Runway 13,” he said.

Foye said the Port Authority maintains the runways, but the FAA determines which ones stay open. The FAA has not answered the question of why Runway 13 was kept in operation despite the inclement weather.

“The runway was plowed, and somebody made a decision to continue with the landings, so that’s all going to be investigated,” said former National Transportation Safety Board investigator Al Yurman.

In another precaution, FAA safety zones are set up at each end of the 7,000-foot runway, covered with a special material to help planes slow down quickly in an emergency. But the plane that skidded off was just short of the bumper when its pilot lost control.

Some Delta customers said the pilot had many better options than approaching the airport at all.

“Turning around, and landing somewhere else, or delaying the flight completely,” said Delta customer Sharon Smith of Harlem.

A small army of first responders rushed to the airport at the top of the accident. Passengers were preparing to make their emergency exits.

The plane’s emergency chutes did not deploy, so passengers in winter coats had to slide down a damaged right wing. First responders helped people onto the snowy tarmac below.

“Getting off the plane, I’m jumping down the window, we’re sliding off the wing, and they were like: ‘Hurry up! Hurry up!’” said passenger Malcolm Duckett. “I see gas coming out of the wing; of the left wing.”

“Passengers were calm. They were like, ‘Whoa!’ but we all knew we were on the ground, so there was immediate sense of calmness,” said passenger Sheila Mihalovits. “Then they came by and said, ‘You can leave via the ramp.’ And we slid our tooshies down the wing of the plane and were caught by fireman.”

Maney slid down the wing with two nervous children.

“They are remarkably resilient, and here we are,” she said. “We told them they’ve slid before; they can slide down a wing.”

CBS News’ Norah O’Donnell said she was on a different flight at the airport at the time of the incident.

“I was about to take off when the pilot came on the intercom and said, ‘Ladies and gentleman some terrible news, there has been an accident here at LaGuardia,'” O’Donnell told CBS2.

O’Donnell and fellow passengers sat on the runway for about 30 minutes before deplaning. She said from her vantage point, it looks like the plane jack-knifed.

“It is perpendicular to the runway,” O’Donnell said. “Clearly a plane is not headed in the direction of a fence like that so it appears to have slid and turned to some degree.”

There were 127 passengers and five crew members on the plane and all were taken off safely, authorities said. The jet has a capacity from 130 to 172 passengers.

The FDNY said 24 people suffered non-life threatening injuries and said three people have been taken to the hospital. O’Donnell said she saw one man on a gurney and said he appeared to be in OK condition.

One woman said her knee and leg were injured during the evacuation and was taken out on a stretcher.

Port Authority officials said first responders drill constantly to prepare for something like what happened Thursday.

“The Port Authority police and ARF response trained for this repeatedly during the last three weeks,” Foye said. “There were two ARF drills here at LaGuadia for exactly this circumstance.”

“I’m just thankful I’m here, because when I got off the plane, I could tell that it was a little more serious than I thought it was,” added Duckett.

Delta issued a statement saying, “Our priority is ensuring our customers and crew members are safe. Delta will work with all authorities and stakeholders to look into what happened in this incident.”

The airport was closed for a time after the accident.

Late Thursday, the National Transportation Safety Board was headed to LaGuardia, where investigators will receive the plane’s data and cockpit voice recorders.

However, the Port Authority says travelers with flights scheduled to arrive and depart from the airport should still check with their carrier to determine the status of their flight.