ATLANTA -- A low-flying police helicopter searching at night for a runaway boy hit a power line pole, plummeted to the ground and exploded, killing both officers on board. No one on the ground was harmed.
Federal authorities were investigating what caused the chopper to crash into power lines along a busy city street. Electricity was knocked out to nearby homes and businesses in an area with shopping plazas, fast-food restaurants and a gas station.
The 9-year-old boy was found wandering on a city street a couple of hours after the crash late Saturday night, Atlanta police spokesman John Chafee said yesterday. He had run away after being scolded by his mother.
The two officers were identified as pilot Richard J. Halford, 48, of Lithia Springs, who had been with the department for 26 years, and Shawn A. Smiley, 40, of Lithonia, a tactical flight officer who joined the department two years ago.
Police Chief George Turner praised the two officers as public servants who died honorably in the search for the missing boy. Both men were fathers. Smiley had three children under the age of 10.
The families have asked for privacy, and trust funds have been set up at Wells Fargo Bank locations to help them, said Atlanta police spokesman Carlos Campos.
Their deaths shook not only the police force, but the entire city.
"It's sad. It's tragic . . . for someone to lose their lives trying to find a kid, trying to keep another family together," Rodney Christian, 22, said as he and more than a dozen others looked at the scene in the early morning darkness yesterday.
Christian thought of his month-old baby. "It makes me want to rush home and get back to my kid."
The wreckage of the OH-6A helicopter had already been moved as investigators worked to piece together what happened, said Eric M. Weiss, a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board. Part of the helicopter's landing gear had to be removed from the cables.
Federal Aviation Administration records showed the helicopter was a Hughes OH-6A manufactured in 1967. The Hughes has historically been a military workhorse.
A bystander, Darryl James, 42, said he had gone with a companion to a check-cashing store Saturday night when he heard the helicopter flying overhead and thought it was rather low.
"The tail end went down and then there was an explosion," James said. He said he tried to get close to the wreckage. "As soon as I got close enough to it, poom! It exploded."
James said people are often waiting at a normally busy bus stop near the crash site, adding, "Thank God nobody was out there."