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HOLIDAY TRAVEL // For travelers, a still life

A major snowstorm Wednesday blanketed the eastern half of the United States, stranding air travelers and threatening to put a dent in Christmas sales.

The storm _ stretching from the Plains to New England _ buried New York and Boston under nearly a foot of snow.

A Tower Air jumbo jet headed for Miami with 467 people aboard skidded off a runway and collapsed its nose gear after the pilot aborted takeoff because of runway ice at New York's John F. Kennedy Airport.

Twenty-eight people were injured.

"One of the engines was missing, and the front of the plane was in the snow," said Simcha Mergi after leaving the airliner. "It was a miracle."

The accident closed the airport for four hours, delaying or canceling 200 flights.

Flights from Europe into JFK were rerouted to airports as far away as Bangor, Maine, Cincinnati and Raleigh-Durham. Boston's Logan International Airport closed briefly.

Stranded travelers slept and waited in airport lounges.

Jerrold Morgulas, a New Yorker trapped in Tampa, planned to vent his frustration at the desk attendant for TWA.

"I think I'm going to enjoy going down there and giving it to him," Morgulas said Wednesday. "I'm going to spill my spleen."

Morgulas had already waited five hours for a flight grounded at JFK.

He took from his coat pocket two tickets for a Wednesday evening Christmas concert at the Metropolitan Opera.

"I might as well rip them up," he said.

Still, most flights landing in Tampa and leaving from it Wednesday appeared to be flying on schedule. Only a fraction were caught in the snowstorms blanketing the Northeast and parts of the Midwest, according to airport officials.

Paul MacAlester, director of information at Tampa International Airport, said more than a million travelers come through TIA during the 2{-week Christmas season.

The problems at airports delayed delivery of thousands of overnight packages in the Midwest and Northeast by United Parcel Service and Federal Express.

Both companies hoped to deliver all Christmas packages on time.

"We plan to do whatever it takes, up to and including working all day Saturday and Sunday if necessary, to deliver all holiday packages before Christmas, and we don't expect any to miss," said Ken Sternad of UPS.

In spite of the snow and ice and the widespread airport delays, the Postal Service said it delivered its heaviest load of the year on Wednesday: an estimated three-quarters of a billion items.

Schools were closed across the Ohio Valley and the Northeast, and businesses opened late because of the slippery roads.

Four deaths were blamed on the weather in Maine and Connecticut.

Up to 2 feet of snow fell in northwestern Pennsylvania, with a foot in Ohio and New Jersey. Massachusetts got 10{ inches and southern Maine 6 inches. Near the other end of the storm track, Missouri got up to 10 inches.

"There's still a lot of bad sidewalks," said Tim Mistrik, a mailman picking his way through downtown Pittsburgh.

Utility crews worked to restore electrical service. Some 10,000 homes and businesses were without power in Indiana, down from 65,000 on Tuesday, and some people might not have lights and heat until Friday.

The storm's approach had provoked panic buying of groceries, salt and shovels before shoppers went home to wait out the storm and left many stores empty, with Christmas just days away.

"Now clearly the weather is putting a crimp in sales. From the retailers' point of view, fortunately we still have another full weekend ahead of us," said Joseph Ronning, an analyst for Brown Brothers Harriman.

Still, the storm might not be the disaster some people think.

Ski area operators in New England were delighted with the snowfall just ahead of the Christmas holidays. Resorts in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont were expecting 1 to 2 feet of fresh snow.

And if the snow remains as expected, New York City will celebrate its first white Christmas in 12 years.

_ Information from Times correspondent David Karp, the Associated Press and Reuters was used in this report.

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