Two District police patrol cars speeding to the aid of an officer collided on a residential street in Anacostia yesterday, injuring five officers, three of them rookies.

The impact of the crash shortly before 1 p.m. was so severe that large pieces of the patrol cars were hurled about 30 yards, and residents said the collision at 16th and W streets SE was heard several blocks away.

A witness who helped the officers described a scene of near pandemonium at the corner where the crash occurred, as gasoline spewed from the two cars and smoke rose from the wreckage.

The five officers from the 7th District, including three rookies, were trapped in the wrecks, and some were moaning. Officers from a third patrol car also responding to the distress call radioed for assistance, with one frantically repeating over the police radio, "five officers trapped."

"The impact was horrendous," said Gerald Cox, an ROTC instructor at Anacostia High School who was the first civilian to go to the aid of the officers. "I yelled to the people, 'Call the ambulances. Get water.' "

The wrecks ended up within feet of each other, one leaning on its side against a maple tree, the other wrapped around a telephone pole. "They met in the intersection, and there was just a horrible, horrible impact," said Cox. "Those inside were tossed like rag dolls in a hurricane."

The Washington Hospital Center's MedStar unit said that two officers there -- Eric P. Felton, 26, and Reginald Pinkney, 25 -- were in critical condition last night. Felton suffered severe blunt force trauma to his head and chest, and Pinkney's legs were crushed, requiring steel rods or pins to be inserted in both thighs, police said.

Felton was given a brain scan and was placed on a respirator to aid his breathing.

At Georgetown University Hospital, Officers Jamella Greene and James J. Boyle, both 22-year-old rookies, were listed in good condition, suffering from multiple contusions, head trauma and concussions.

At D.C. General Hospital, Officer Lynwood Barnhill Jr., 24, also a rookie, was listed in stable condition.

The patrol cars were responding to a 10-33 alert, which means an officer was in trouble, in the 2100 block of Fendall Street SE, two blocks from the scene of the accident. The two cars were among several responding to the call for help from two officers trying to arrest a man for disorderly conduct, Police Chief Isaac Fulwood Jr. said.

A crowd formed and the officer who placed the call was "obviously in distress," said a police spokesman, Lt. Reginald Smith. Other police units helped control the situation, police said.

Fulwood said the accident grew out of the young officers' adherence to long-held police tradition. "When that call comes out, that one of the brothers needs assistance, you are going to respond, and respond as fast as you can," he said.

Fulwood hurried to the scene, accompanied by other high ranking officials, and a police chaplain was sent to console families at one of the hospitals.

There was such a sense of urgency that a National Park Service helicopter transporting one of the officers to Washington Hospital Center received permission to fly over restricted air space, which includes the White House. The helicopter completed the trip in 2 minutes 25 seconds.

Police officials said the officers involved in the crash apparently were wearing seat belts and bulletproof vests. Fulwood and police spokesman Smith attributed the relatively good condition of some of the officers to those factors. The vests, designed to spread the impact of a bullet, were "very, very helpful" in cushioning the collision's impact on the officers, Fulwood said.

He said he doesn't believe the relative youth of the officers played a role in the accident.

Within minutes of the crash, rescue units and dozens of officers converged on the scene. The roof of one of the cars was cut open by rescue units.

Almost immediately, police investigators began the complex process of reconstructing the accident. Officials on the scene declined to discuss any aspect of the investigation, including the speed of the vehicles.

Witnesses gave conflicting accounts, disagreeing on whether the patrol cars had their lights and sirens on. But this much is clear, based on interviews:

One patrol car was heading east on W Street toward 16th. A second one, apparently followed by a third, was speeding north on 16th.

The two cars smashed into each other at 16th and W, coming to rest on the northeast corner, across W Street from the Paramount Market. There are two schools within blocks of the corner, and neighbors said the accident could have been much more severe if it had occurred after students were let out for the day.

All police cars responding to this kind of emergency are required to have headlights, emergency lights and sirens activated, police said. But one witness who saw the police car traveling east on W Street just before the collision said only the emergency lights were on.

"I was standing right here and I didn't hear anything. All I saw was the damn light flashing," said Bernard Cox, whose house is near the intersection.

Another witness, Ringgold Clayton, said only one of the two cars traveling north on 16th Street had its siren on. She said both were speeding.

"He was going fast coming down his hill. They were going fast," said Clayton, who was looking out her apartment window.

Assistant Police Chief Melvin C. High said police cars are required to stop at intersections and stop signs, and should not go any faster than 10 miles above the posted speed limit. It was 25 miles per hour there.