A city police helicopter tracking a dirt-bike rider in the Greater Rosemont section of West Baltimore crashed in a park last night, injuring two officers, police said.
Witnesses said the helicopter circled above Easterwood Park, off the 1500 block of Moreland Ave., about 7 p.m. and suddenly dropped to the ground, missing a group of men playing basketball about 100 feet away.
"I heard the helicopter swooping around, and I looked up and saw the dirt bike coming through the field," said Rahkeen Brunson, 22, who had been playing basketball on the park's courts. "Then the helicopter was coming in on the dirt bike. It missed him, and the [rotor blade] hit the ground. [It] split in two."
One of the officers was able leave the helicopter on his own, witnesses said, and other officers from patrol cars in the area quickly arrived to help the helicopter's second officer escape.
Both officers were taken to Maryland Shock Trauma Center, where they were in fair condition last night. The pilot was reported to be complaining of pain in his legs, and his passenger -- the observer, in police parlance -- was said to have chest pains, police said.
Police identified the pilot as Lawrence Lester, 49, who has spent all but six months of his 22-year police career with the helicopter unit, and the observer as 13-year veteran John Smith, 37. Officer Smith has been in the unit about a year, a department spokeswoman said.
Witnesses and police said the dirt bike and its operator got away. Police said the helicopter was chasing the dirt bike because it had struck a police car about 20 minutes earlier at Monroe and Baker streets, five blocks east of the park.
"It's much safer for a helicopter to [track a dirt bike] than for cars to [chase] it," said Baltimore Police Col. Ronald Daniel.
Police did not know by 10 p.m. why the helicopter had crashed. No flames or explosions occurred either before or after the aircraft crashed, witnesses said.
"The aircraft was at treetop level when it made some type of strange noise, and then the aircraft fell," said Officer Sabrina V. Tapp-Harper, a police spokeswoman. "There were no indications that the aircraft was flying low at the time of impact."
Representatives of the Federal Aviation Administration and from the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates all aircraft crashes, arrived at the crash scene late last night to begin their investigation.
The park was cordoned off by police after the crash, and two dozen officers walked through the field to search for the &L; scattered pieces. Fluorescent orange circles marked those spots where parts had been found, and the rear section of the helicopter rested about 50 feet away from the body.
Late last night, firetrucks had turned spotlights on the field as an officer with a metal detector again searched for broken parts. Meanwhile, music blared from a private party in the park's nearby recreation center and neighbors stopped by to stare at the mangled helicopter.
Police said the $250,000 Schweitzer 300C helicopter -- one of five helicopters owned by the department -- was demolished. The helicopter was the department's newest, purchased in October.
Area residents said the helicopter crashed in an area often used by neighborhood children to play baseball, and said it was fortunate that no one was there last night.
"It's amazing and shocking that there weren't more people hurt," said Dion Lawson, 31, who was playing basketball when the helicopter crashed. "It was by coincidence that there wasn't a child out there."
The crash was the third in the 25-year history of the Baltimore police helicopter unit, often referred to by the nickname "Foxtrot." The last crash was in October 1992, in the nearby Walbrook area of Baltimore.
That helicopter had been assisting in the arrest of a car theft suspect when it crashed in the intersection of Clifton Avenue and Dukeland Street and was destroyed. Both officers in that crash were moderately injured.
The only other crash was in 1977, when a police helicopter had to make an emergency landing on North Avenue.