Police helicopter crashes during hunt for robbers

2008-07-04 00:00

A police helicopter flew into power lines and crashed in Gauteng yesterday soon after taking part in a search for two escaping robbers.

The helicopter crashed on a soccer field in a stretch of open veld mere metres from homes and shops in Meadowlands, Soweto.

The suspects got away.

Provincial police spokesman Superintendent Eugene Opperman said at the scene that three policemen were seriously injured, after "the helicopter flew into high-tension power lines at about 8.30 am during a search".

Captain Carl Bernardo, the pilot, Captain Willie Steyn (44), the co-pilot, and Sergeant Paul Steyn (34) were in the helicopter.

Superintendent Andre Liang, the station commissioner at Florida Police Station, said that 15 minutes before the crash, two men robbed a woman near a dam between Florida and Meadowlands. When police gave chase, the suspects swam across a small river to the western side of a mine dump and opened fire on the police.

"We fired back, but they ran off in different directions and hid in the bushes. That’s when we called in the air wing of the Roodepoort dog unit," Liang said.

One suspect was fleeing across the mine dump towards Meadowlands when the helicopter flew over the mine dump and struck the power lines.

Liang said he was trying to keep up, but before he came to the top of the mine dump, a colleague ran towards him and shouted, "Chopper down, chopper down!".

"When I arrived on the scene, the live power lines were jerking and the helicopter’s engines were still running even though it was in two pieces," said Liang. "Two people in the area were busy taking the policemen out of the wreck."

Peter Sekwale was at a nearby shop when the crash happened.

"I saw the helicopter spiral down to the ground and ran towards it. Then I broke the windscreen to haul the people out, because I was scared the thing would explode."

One man had a deep cut in his throat, Sekwale said. "I shouted for another man to bring towels to close the throat wound."

Liang, Sekwale and a resident, William Baepi, got the men out.

Netcare 911 spokesman Nick Dollman said the three men were taken to Milpark Hospital by helicopter. A hospital spokesperson said the three were in a serious but stable condition and out of danger.

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