By Norman Gomlak
ATLANTA — A police helicopter flying low over Atlanta on a nighttime search for a missing 9-year-old boy plunged to the ground in a neighborhood of shops and apartments, killing the two officers aboard, authorities said Sunday.
Both officers died on impact in the crash about 10:30 p.m. Saturday, but no one was hurt on the ground, police spokesman Carlos Campos said. The crash occurred in a district near heavily traveled Interstate 20 filled with fast food restaurants, shopping plazas and apartments where utility lines bristle overhead.
A photograph aired on a local TV newscast showed what appeared to be flaming debris in a roadway. The helicopter fell in an area roughly 4 miles west of downtown Atlanta. Power was blacked out to a pharmacy and other nearby businesses, and a utility crew was seen apparently working to restore electricity.
"It appeared to hit the utility wire on the way down," Campos told The Associated Press, citing preliminary information. But he emphasized: "We don't know what caused it" and referred all queries to the Federal Aviation Administration, which was just opening its investigation.
Bystander Darryl James, 42, told the AP that 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." He added of the helicopter's occupants: "They could not survive it."
James said people are often waiting at a normally busy bus stop near the crash site, adding, "Thank God nobody was out there."
After the crash, fire trucks and police cars with lights flashing converged on the area, blocking surrounding roads. Police put up yellow crime scene tape and kept bystanders so far back they were unable to see the crash site behind a small rise. The names of the dead were withheld early Sunday while relatives were notified, police said.
Meanwhile, Atlanta's police force was mourning.
"Losing an officer is the most difficult thing a police chief can face," Atlanta Police Chief George Turner said in a news release. "Losing two is an unthinkable tragedy. Our hearts go out to the families of these officers and our thoughts and prayers are with them."
He called it a difficult day for the Atlanta force and "a reminder of their bravery and the sacrifices made by our officers every day."
Police said the helicopter was called in to join the search after police received a report shortly after 9 p.m. of a missing child. Campos said the boy was later found unharmed, but he had no further details on that search.
Kathleen Bergen, a spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration, told AP by email that the FAA was investigating and the National Transportation Safety Board would also be involved, seeking to determine the cause. She didn't know the type of helicopter involved yet.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed also said early Sunday that he was saddened by what he called a "terrible accident."
"We mourn these two brave men and offer our deepest condolences to their families and loved ones," Reed said in a statement.
Early Sunday, about 20 people still watched the investigation hours after the crash near the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. and Hamilton E. Holmes drives, near I-20.
Rodney Christian, 22, stood by, lamenting the loss of lives.
"It's sad. It's tragic ... for someone to lose their lives trying to find a kid, trying to keep another family together," Christian told the AP. He added that he has a 1-month-old baby at home and was shaken just by the thought of the tragic events.
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"It makes me want to rush home and get back to my kid."