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The pilot of a police helicopter swerved to miss a day-care center just before the chopper crashed and burst into flames in a parking lot, killing two officers and a man on the ground.

"The men that were in the helicopter gave their lives to protect the school," said Lucille Burrus, 50, a crossing guard narrowly missed by the helicopter when it plummeted Thursday.The midday crash occurred minutes before dozens of kindergarteners were to head for home, she said.

Killed were officer Gary Howe, 41, the pilot, and officer Charles R. "Randy" Champe, 46, said Lt. Kenneth Hale of the Police Department Air Division. They were on a routine patrol when Howe radioed that he was having engine trouble.

The name of the man killed on the ground was not released.

The police helicopter fleet was grounded while the accident is investigated.

The pilot reported mechanical problems just before the chopper crashed across the street and less than 50 yards from Normandie Avenue Children's Center, a day-care facility on the campus of Normandie Avenue Elementary School.

The school serves 1,400 students, the day-care center, 130.

The center wasn't damaged but children were evacuated.

The crash set fire to several cars in the parking lot and the blaze spread to a single-story duplex, blackening part of the structure and breaking windows.