A police helicopter assisting with a car-theft arrest crashed last night in the middle of a West Baltimore street, injuring the two officers aboard.
The veteran pilot, Officer John W. Rennie, 46, and the crewman, Officer Charles Crocker, 29, were taken by ambulance to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center. Officials said the men were in serious and stable condition last night, and that both were conscious and able to describe the accident.
Witnesses in the large crowd that gathered around the site at Clifton Avenue and Dukeland Street said the crash occurred just after 9 p.m. as the helicopter -- a 1-year-old Schweizer 300-C -- was directing its spotlight at a Ford Tempo stopped by officers on Clifton.
They said the spotlight suddenly went out, the engine began to sputter and in seconds the craft spiraled about 200 feet to the ground. The pilot, who police said retained some ability to steer, managed to avoiding rowhouses, parked cars and pedestrians and aim the copter for the middle of the street.
"It was really a remarkable feat that he was able to put it down where he did," said Police Agent Doug Price, a department spokesman.
Agent Price said the two men were able to crawl from the helicopter, which was spilling fuel but did not catch fire. Other officers ran to the scene and helped them away.
Officers recovered the tail-rotor blade at some distance from the crash site. Federal Aviation Administration investigators arrived at the scene late last night as rain began to fall.
Jamie Bull, 14, of Windsor Avenue, said he was watching the helicopter before the crash.
"The bird came around my house with its light on," he said. "It seemed to be chasing someone. It twisted, and then it dropped."
K. C. Davis, 16, who was standing on Clifton Avenue, said he saw two patrol cars on Clifton next to the stopped Ford.
The two suspects were standing alongside with their hands on the roof of the Tempo when the accident occurred, he said.
Carmen Jones, 32, of nearby Koko Lane, said that as the copter fell, "it was flapping like a bird," with its tail spinning around and around. "It was wobbling down and then it hit the ground," she said.
Police said two department helicopters had flown to the area as patrol cars pursued the stolen car. One returned to the base at the Glenn L. Martin State Airport in Middle River. The second helicopter remained to illuminate the area for officers on the ground and was the craft that crashed, they said.
Last night's crash was the first in the 22-year history of the so-called "Foxtrot" Baltimore police helicopter unit, said Regis R. Raffensberger, who organized it in 1970 when he was with the Baltimore force.
Mr. Raffensberger, now police chief in Frederick, said last night the Foxtrot unit's safety record was "the best of any airborne law enforcement unit in the world." He said there had been 78 "precautionary landings" since 1970, but no accidents.
He said Officer Rennie, whose nickname is "Rooftop," has 20 years of flying experience, including two tours of Vietnam as a helicopter pilot. He was shot down three times in Vietnam, Mr. Raffensberger said.
There have been at least three fatal accidents involving state police helicopters since 1970. The last was a 1986 crash in West Baltimore's Gwynns Falls Park during heavy fog in which both the pilot and paramedic aboard were killed.
Police identified the two occupants of the stolen Ford Tempo as Derrick Lamont Frazier, 27, of the 5300 block of Carriage Court in Southwest Baltimore, and a 14-year-old boy from the 500 block of North Carey Street. Both were charged with auto theft.
The owner of the Tempo told police he saw his car being driven away about 9 p.m. and called 911.