A D.C. Police helicopter crashed and burst into flames on a busy street in Southeast Washington yesterday, killing both officers abroad and narrowly missing an elementary school filled with almost 1,000 children.
The helicopter, which was directing a police car to a suspected burglar who had been plaguing the neighborhood, began "sputtering" while flying at a low altitude over the 700 block of Yuma Street and then plummeted to the ground, witnesses said.
The pilot, Alfred V. Jackson, 34, was also the pilot in a similar operation just last Thursday when he helped direct officers on the ground to a man suspected of being the long-sought "robber-jogger" of Southeast Washington.
As the helicopter fell yesterday, it hit several power lines, flipped over and smashed into the ground on its side, the witnesses said.
Almost immediately, the helicopter burst into flames. Several bystanders rushed to the scene and pulled one officer from the wreckage. But they were unable to reach the second officer because of intense heat from the flames.
"We pulled out one man, but we knew the other one was dead," said Jerome Brown, 25, of 602 Atlantic Street. "The whole side [of the copter] was burning . . . We could not see the other guy for the flames."
A U.S. Park Police helicopter was called in and rushed both officers to Washington Hospital Center. Officer Richard F. Giguere, 38, was pronounced dead on arrival. Jackson, 34, died a short time later.
Both men were longtime veterans of the D.C. Police Department's helicopter branch.
Jackson's helicopter crashed and before 2 p.m. on a busy block between the Washington Highlands Community Elementary School on the north side of Yuma Street SE and a row of apartment buildings on the south side.
No one on the street was injured. One car parked nearby had its rear window smashed out by a cross piece ripped from a utility pole when the copter crashed. The more than 950 pupils and 58 teachers inside the school were thrown into momentary confusion. Principal Frances Hughes was told the building was on fire and ordered it evacuated. When that turned out not to be the case, the children returned to the building.
Police and rescue vehicles rushed to the scene. Before that, however, several neighborhood residents had pulled one of the officers from the flames.
Stephen Case, 22, of 727 Yuma St., who was playing basketball on the nearby school grounds, said that when the crash occurred, he ran up and saw one officer "halfway out" of the helicopter.
"His legs were still on fire, Cade said. He said he ran into his own house across the street and brought blanket to wrap around the officer.
"There was no way that we could get to the other man," Cade said. "The flames were too hot."
Yesterday's stakeout operation involved attempts to catch a "daylight burglar" who has been operating in the Southeast neighborhood for some time.
A witness told the police that one of the officers aboard the helicopter had been pointing to a house to direct ground units just before the helicopter began falling.
The wreckage of the $55,000 craft was hauled yesterday evening to National Airport where investigators from the police department, the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board were sifting through it for clues to the cause of the crash.
Gene Sundeen, transportation board official in charge of the investigation, said late in the day that there were preliminary indications that the copter had developed engine trouble and was trying to make an emergency landing.
The helicopter's gas tanks still had fuel, he said. The fuel ignited when the helicopter crashed.
The crash was the fifth for D.C. police since the department began operating a helicopter branch in 1970. It was the first accident in which officers were killed. No civilians have been injured.
The helicopter in yesterday's crash was a Bell 47 model, a small helicopter able to hold two officers - the pilot and an observer - in a cockpit covered by a plastic bubble.
Pilots are trained to "auto-rotate" the helicopter when the engine fails - a technique of lowering the craft slowly by manipulating the rotary blades and guiding the helicopter to a safe landing spot.
This is apparently what Jackson was trying to do yesterday, police said. He was attempting to land the craft on the street between the school and the apartment buildings, they said. "It would have been a perfect landing if he hadn't hit the wires," a police spokesman said.
Several witnesses said they saw the helicopter flying over at a low altitude and heard its engine sputter.
"The engine turned off once, and it turned on again and then it turned off again," said William Graham, 22, of 637 Yuma St. who was working on a car in a nearby alley. "I told my buddies, 'It's falling, man.'"
Sundeen of the transportation safety board said he does not know of any last-minute radio transmissions of Jackson. The helicopter is equipped for radio communication with both the D.C. police dispatcher and the air control tower at National Airport, from which the helicopter took off.
The last helicopter crash here occurred on April 2, 1976, in a wooded area just off Suitland Parkway SE. There were no serious injuries.
Jackson was a career officer who joined the police department in 1971 and entered the helicopter branch in 1973. His wife, Alicia, is also a D.C. police officer and the couple had two children. They live in Southeast Washington.
"He loved his work," said Thomas Duncan, a fellow police officer. "He would say he gets excited in the chase of criminals. His thing was always to be the best."
Giguere, a native of Brockton, Mass., joined the police force in 1970 and became an observer in the helicopter branch in 1973. He was married and lived in Woodbridge. The couple had three children. CAPTION: Picture 1, ALFRED V. JACKSON . . . in "robber-jogger" chase; Picture 2, RICHARD F. GIGUERE . . . observer since 1973; Pictures 3 and 4, Police officials stand beside the wreckage of a helicopter in the 700 block of Yuma Street SE. The craft crashed and burned yesterday between a school and apartment building, killing two police officers, the pilot, Alfred V. Jackson, and observer, Richard F. Giguere. Right, Jackson is carried to a Park Police helicopter. Photos by Larry Morris - The Washington Post