Friends, witnesses discuss fatal APD helicopter crash

Updated:

Two Atlanta police officers died late Saturday night after their police helicopter crashed while looking for a missing child. The crash happened just after 10:30 p.m. near the intersection of Martin Luther King Drive and Hamilton E Holmes Drive, just south of Interstate 20.

ATLANTA - Witnesses are describing what they called a heroic decision just moments before a police helicopter crashed, killing two Atlanta police officers.

The accident claimed the lives of Officers Richard Halford and Shawn Smiley, and witnesses told Channel 2’s Carl Willis that they died trying to save others.

Duwon Robinson said he was in a parking lot in northwest Atlanta Saturday night when he heard the police helicopter overhead. He said he believes the pilot’s decision to continue toward Hamilton E. Holmes Drive to avoid people was a heroic decision.

“By the time I got from there to here, it was gone,” Robinson said. “They were protecting and serving and died heroes.”

Robinson described to Willis what he saw as the helicopter came down.

“They were about to land in the Family Dollar, but they saw people out there and that’s when they turned the chopper, coming this direction,” Robinson said.

Robinson said the helicopter appeared to be unable to lift. He said it hovered a short distance to the location when National Transpiration and Safety Board investigators said the helicopter crashed into power poles.

“It was heroic because, once he saw the people, he tried to go up and avoid landing near people and that had to be the reason he came this way,” Robinson said.

Former corrections officer James Banks said he met Halford at the police academy. He said Halford knew the neighborhood like the back of his hand and he believes the fact that no others were hurt was no accident.

“Unfortunately, he didn’t get it above those (power lines), but guess what? He did what he was supposed to do. He saved a whole lot of lives,” Banks said.

Robinson said he is grateful for the last-second decision, but he feels conflicted.

“I keep replaying in my mind, what if he could have landed it there? Would they have been OK, maybe crashed and hurt, but not gone?” Robinson said.

The NTSB is still investigating the crash.

Fellow police officers spoke out about the crash for the first time on Wednesday.

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Lt. Bill Riley flies the Fayette County Sheriff’s Office helicopter.

“It’s actually like something grabs hold of your heart, ‘cause I’ve known Richard for over 15 years. Tears came to my eyes,” Riley said.

Riley said Halford was a great pilot, with whom he had flown on countless operations.

“A very safe pilot. Solid pilot. What we refer to in the business as a good stick, and that’s the best compliment you can get when you’re a professional pilot is for another pilot to call you a good stick. He was not a risk taker, he was a conservative rule follower. He absolutely was. I cannot imagine ever in my life Richard taking chances,” Riley said.

Riley said he met Smiley once, and the pair was a great fit.

Riley said he once found a missing child at night while flying with then-Spalding County Capt. Clarence Cox.

“The thing about a child is, they are very inquisitive. When they hear a helicopter, they want to see it,” Riley said.

Riley said he began his career as a helicopter pilot defending his country, but now he will defend the APD crew if need-be.

“There was nothing about this that should bring anyone to the conclusion that something was done wrong by that crew,” Riley said.

Riley said he is awaiting the NTSB report.

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