Two police helicopters involved in a high-speed car chase collided over Irvine and crashed Tuesday night, killing three people, authorities said.
Initial police reports indicated that the three dead were Costa Mesa police officers and the two injured men were Newport Beach police.
Identities of the dead and injured were not immediately released.
Irvine Police Lt. Al Muir said firefighters told him that there were three bodies at the wreckage of the Costa Mesa police helicopter. Muir said the police helicopter normally carries one pilot and one observer.
"We can't account for the other body at this time," he said.
The helicopters had joined ground units in a high-speed chase that continued after the copter crash. Before it was over, the chase covered much of Orange County. The helicopters had been trying to help Santa Ana police pursue a fleeing suspect in an allegedly stolen car when they collided and plunged to the ground near Bonita Canyon Road, east of MacArthur Boulevard, officials said.
The crash site was described as an open field near the UC Irvine campus. There was a brief fire at the crash scene, but it was extinguished shortly after firefighters arrived, the Orange County Fire Department said.
"Our information is that our two men were injured but that their injuries weren't life-threatening," said Newport Beach Police Sgt. Doug Thomas about an hour after the crash. Thomas said the injured Newport Beach officers were taken to Western Medical Center, Santa Ana, where their conditions were not immediately known.
Police said that during the chase officers from Newport Beach, Huntington Beach, Santa Ana and Anaheim joined the pursuit. The fleeing man reportedly drove through Santa Ana and Newport Beach, then up the 55 Freeway to the 91 Freeway. The man stopped his car near Anaheim and Elm streets in Anaheim, where he fled on foot and was captured and taken to the Anaheim Police Department.
An Anaheim police spokesman said Santa Ana officers would be taking the suspect to the Santa Ana police station for further questioning. The suspect had not been booked as of 11:45 p.m. Tuesday. Officers would not release the suspect's name.
Federal Aviation Administration officials said some people on the ground witnessed the helicopter collision and will be interviewed by FAA investigators who were dispatched to the scene Tuesday night.
Irvine Police Lt. Muir said the police pursuit of the fleeing driver began about 10 p.m. Tuesday in Santa Ana.
Muir said the Costa Mesa Police Department helicopter joined in the pursuit and radioed the Newport Beach helicopter asking it to join the chase. Muir said that a few minutes later, the Huntington Beach Police Department helicopter, which was also in the nighttime sky, radioed a question: Had there been any word from the Newport Beach and Costa Mesa choppers?
Spotted Wreckage At about the same time, an Irvine police officer in a patrol car reported that he thought he saw smoke in the Bonita Canyon Road area, east of MacArthur Boulevard. Muir said the Irvine officer drove to an area about a quarter of a mile east of MacArthur and saw the wreckage of the Costa Mesa police helicopter.
The Newport Beach helicopter landed in an Irvine field off Bonita Canyon Drive, about a quarter of a mile from the burning wreckage of the Costa Mesa chopper, police said. The pilot of the Newport Beach police helicopter was able to walk away from the wreckage, police said. The other person on the Newport Beach police chopper reportedly was slightly injured.
The area where the two helicopters came down is not near any street lights or residences and was described by observers at the scene as being "very dark, with hilly, grassy slopes." After the crash, however, the area became awash with lighted emergency vehicles, and helicopters circled overhead with their lights.
Police said witnesses to the crash were being gathered early Wednesday morning.
Times staff writer Nieson Himmel and staff photographer Mark Boster contributed to this story.