A Los Angeles police helicopter on routine patrol plunged from the sky Thursday after reporting engine trouble and exploded in a vacant lot in southwest Los Angeles, killing both officers aboard and a third person standing on the ground.
Witnesses said the helicopter apparently swerved in the air at the last moment to avoid hitting a day-care center and elementary school in its path, and instead crashed across the street in a ball of flame that destroyed eight vehicles parked in the vacant lot.
"The men that were in the helicopter gave their lives to protect the school," said Lucille Burrus, a 50-year-old crossing guard who just missed being hit by the falling helicopter.
Burrus said the timing of the accident was unnerving. Had the crash occurred just five minutes later, it might have endangered dozens of home-bound kindergarten students.
Police officials identified the pilot as Gary Howe, a 20-year police veteran, who had logged 10,000 hours of flight time over Los Angeles since joining the department's Air Support Division in 1976.
The observer in the helicopter was Officer Charles R. (Randy) Champe, also a certified helicopter pilot, who had been with the Air Support Division since 1986.
The male bystander killed in the crash had not yet been identified.
In the wake of the crash, the LAPD grounded its remaining 18 helicopters as a precautionary measure to check for possible problems with the fleet. The craft involved in Thursday's crash was only two years old and one of the department's newest.
The crash, which left the working-class neighborhood littered with debris from the obliterated helicopter, occurred just after 11:20 a.m. at the intersection of Raymond and Vernon avenues.
Police Chief Daryl F. Gates, who arrived on the scene about 40 minutes after the crash, said the craft had taken off just a few minutes earlier from the department's downtown heliport and was heading west above Vernon Avenue.
The copter's final radio message came from Champe, the observer. "We're going down with an engine failure," Champe said in a calm voice, according to Sgt. Brent Carey of the LAPD's Air Support Division.
The French-made Aerospatiale 350 B-1 helicopter had left the downtown police heliport shortly after 11 a.m. and was scheduled to perform a flyby at the Main Street Elementary School as part of a DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) graduation ceremony, said air support Lt. Ken Hale.
Gwen Turner, acting principal at the Main Street school, said a helicopter flew by the school shortly after 11 a.m. as 100 youngsters, mostly sixth-graders, gathered in the playground to watch. The school is located in the 100 block of East 53rd Street, less than two miles east of the crash site.
The helicopter crashed across the street from another school, Normandie Avenue Elementary.
Burrus, a school crossing guard at Normandie Avenue Elementary, said she was escorting a parent and her children across the street when she saw the helicopter descending toward her, wobbling uneasily in the air.
"It seemed to be heading straight for the school," Burrus said. "The only thing I could think of was to run."
But as the craft moved steadily downward, Burrus said, it suddenly swerved right, away from the schoolyard. Burrus ran for cover, feeling a wave of heat and pressure as the shock wave from the explosion hit her back.
"The next thing I heard was the explosion. Then I saw the flame," she said. "I knew that no one was alive."
The sound of the explosion sent schoolchildren scurrying for cover, although most were on a playground well away from the crash site.
"We all saw the smoke and people started running and screaming," said Javance White Jr., a 9-year-old student at the school, who was taking lunch outside. "All the children in the lunch area started running everywhere."
Father Jerome L. Cummings, a priest assigned to the North Hollywood Police Division arrived at the scene at 2 p.m.
"I just happened to be in the area and I heard it on the radio," Cummings said. He administered last rites to the three men.
Champe and Howe became the 177th and 178th Los Angeles police officers killed in the line of duty since 1907, according to police officials.
Those who knew the two officers said they were respected professionals.
Last year, Champe won the department's Air Crew Member of the Year award. He was a Vietnam veteran who had done two tours of duty, said Lt. Hale.
"He was always the first one who wanted to go out," Hale said. "You couldn't get him to sit down for a rest."
Greg Stevens, a yacht salesman who lives in the Pacific Yacht Landing Marina where Champe and his wife, Cynthia Sue, lived, said the couple celebrated their 21st wedding anniversary last week.
"Randy is a wonderful guy, a helpful, smiley kind of person," he said. "We're all pretty devastated by this. . . . This is like a little community. We're all very close, have dock parties."
Howe, a resident of Claremont and father of three, had just celebrated his 40th birthday. He was a major in the Army Reserves and was one of the most experienced pilots in the Air Support Division.
Ironically, in 1985, Howe's niece was killed in a Delta Airlines crash, said Wayne Brown, Howe's brother-in-law.
"He just helped us a lot with the planning for the funeral, taking care of a lot of things for us."
Along Vernon Avenue, residents and merchants watched in horror Thursday morning as the disabled helicopter passed before them.
Galvin Jefferson was standing on the porch of his duplex across the street from the crash scene.
"As soon as I heard the noise, the helicopter was in front of my face, then boom," he said.
Jefferson said it seemed as if the helicopter swooped over the roof of his house and then "everything was on fire."
Isiah Williams, 61, the owner of an auto repair shop across the street from the crash, said the helicopter struck a light post in front of his shop and crashed with an explosion that felt "like an earthquake."
"It looked like it (the copter) was in trouble. I saw it when it hit the light pole. I fell back," Williams said. "When I got back up, the flames were jumping in the air. . . . There was a man lying there. He was lying and shaking.
The Fire Department immediately dispatched seven fire units and two rescue units to the site and had the fire under control in about 20 minutes.
All that was left was the smoldering remains of a half dozen cars and a large pile of ashes in the center of the lot. The fire and explosion had also charred the white outer wall of the duplex.
Members of the Airport Support Division, wearing black caps and olive drab jumpsuits, surveyed the scene for several hours after the crash, gathering pieces of metal and wiring scattered on the streets around the crash site.
Thursday's crash was the sixth fatal accident the division has suffered since its inception in 1956. The division's overall accident rate has been less than one accident per 100,000 flying hours--far below the worldwide average of about 12 per 100,000 hours.
Before Thursday's crash, the 19 helicopters and 75 officers of the Air Support Division constituted one of the largest airborne municipal law enforcement systems in the world.
The airborne police serve primarily as observers, spotting suspects below and directing officers on the ground.
Gates said Thursday that the department's special air support investigation team will handle the investigation into the cause of the crash. "It will be some time before we know what took place," he said.
Because the weight of the aircraft was less than 12,000 pounds, the National Transportation Safety Board, which generally confines its work to major air disasters, probably will not investigate the crash. However, if requested, both the NTSB and the Federal Aviation Administration may provide assistance in the LAPD investigation of the incident.
Times staff writers Ashley Dunn and Laurie Becklund contributed to this story.
Fatal Copter Crash
The Los Angeles Police Department Air Support Division is the largest of any municipal law enforcement department the world. Before Thursday's crash, the department's roster listed one fixed-wing aircraft, 19 helicopters and 75 officers. Four helicopters are usually kept aloft over the city.
Following the crsh, the Air Support Division's roster now consists of the following:
- 1 Fixed-wing Cessna 210 for long transportation flights.
- 1 Bell UH-1 (Huey) helicopter for utility work
- 13 Bell Jet Ranger 206-Bs, 400 horsepower, turbine-powered helicopters used for daily patrol work.
- 4 Aerospatiale AStar 350-1 helicopters worth about $1 million each.
The Los Angeles Police Department Air Support Division has suffered six fatal accidents since it was instituted in 1956.
Thursday's crash: An Aerospatiale Astar 350-1 helicopter crashes in an auto shop parking lot in southwest Los Angeles, killing the pilot Gary Howe and crew member Randy Champe. A third person on the ground is also killed. March, 1983: A helicopter taking off from a command post in South-Central Los Angeles hits a power line and crashes during a freak tornado. While no one dies in the crash, reserve officer Stuart Taira is killed by the rotor blade as he aids an injured companion. June 1976: Officer Jeffrey Lindenberg dies when his helicopter crashes during a training program. May 1974: Five officers , including Police Deaprtment Commander Paul Gillen, die in a crash during a training exercise involving a Special Weapons and Tactics Team in Kagel Canyon in the San Gabriel Mountains. Aug. 1966: Officers Alex Ilnicki and L. D. Amberg are killed. Nov. 1964: Officer N. Piepenbrink is killed. Compiled by Times researcher Cecilia Rasmussen