The nose of a big jetliner poking through a fence and resting on an embankment perilously close to Flushing Bay says it all. We caught a break Thursday.

In a heavy snowfall with poor visibility, Delta Air Lines Flight 1086 from Atlanta skidded off a runway at LaGuardia Airport and came dangerously close to plunging into the icy water while landing at 11:10 a.m. The plane carried 127 passengers, including New York Giants tight end Larry Donnell, and five crew members. Fortunately, only minor injuries were reported.

The question now is, what will we learn from this near-disaster?

The runway the MD-88 twin engine aircraft used had just been plowed, and the pilots of two planes that touched down moments earlier reported no problems braking, Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye said.

But with the nasty mix of snow, ice and rain that tortured the region Thursday, conditions could have changed in a heartbeat.

The skid, and early reports that air traffic controllers may have momentarily lost sight of the plane's approach, raise inescapable questions.

Should the Federal Aviation Administration have directed flights away from LaGuardia? The airport was quickly shut down for three hours after the accident. Should it have been closed before? Was there pilot error? Did controllers miss something? Did equipment in the plane or on the ground malfunction? The National Transportation Safety Board and others will sift the evidence and eventually provide answers.

Flying is a remarkably safe way to travel. That's largely because every accident is intensively probed to ferret out what went wrong and what should be done to avoid a repeat. What investigators learn is used to continually improve the safety of planes and airports.

Fortunately, lessons from yesterday's accident won't come with a cost of lives lost.