- Associated Press - Sunday, November 4, 2012

ATLANTA — A low-flying police helicopter searching for a runaway boy hit a power line pole before it plummeted to the ground and exploded, killing both officers on board but leaving those on the ground unharmed.

Federal authorities were investigating what caused the chopper to crash into power lines along on a busy city street. Electricity was knocked out to nearby homes and businesses in an area filled with shopping plazas, fast-food restaurants and a gas station.

The 9-year-old boy was found wandering on a city street a couple of hours after the crash late Saturday night, Atlanta police spokesman Officer John Chafee said Sunday. He ran away after being scolded by his mother.

The two officers were identified Sunday as pilot Richard J. Halford, 48, of Lithia Springs, who had been with the department for 26 years, and Shawn A. Smiley, 40, of Lithonia, a tactical flight officer who joined the department two years ago.

Atlanta Police Chief George Turner praised the two officers as public servants who died honorably in the search for the missing boy. Both men were fathers. Smiley had three children under the age of 10.

“Every day, they provided air support for our officers, assisting in major events and searches for suspects and missing persons,” Turner said in a news release. “Their value to our citizens and our officers on the street is incalculable.”

The families have asked for privacy, and trust funds have been set up at Wells Fargo bank locations to help them, said Atlanta police spokesman Carlos Campos.

Their deaths shook not only the police force, but the entire city.

“It’s sad. It’s tragic … for someone to lose their lives trying to find a kid, trying to keep another family together,” Rodney Christian, 22, said as he and more than a dozen others looked at the scene in the early morning darkness Sunday. Christian lamented the tragedy and thought of his 1-month-old baby.

“It makes me want to rush home and get back to my kid.”

The wreckage of the OH-6A helicopter had already been moved as investigators worked to piece together what happened, said Eric M. Weiss, a spokesman with the National Transportation Safety Board.

Part of the helicopter’s landing gear had to be removed from the cables with the help of the power company.

The NTSB investigators were going over maintenance records and had talked to witnesses.

“They saw the aircraft, they heard the aircraft, and then they saw a flash of light when it hit the pole and then it crashed into the roadway,” investigator Ralph Hicks said.

Records with the Federal Aviation Administration showed the helicopter was a Hughes OH-6A manufactured in 1967. The Hughes has historically been a military workhorse.

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