WOODSON TERRACE • A man involved in a car crash in St. Louis County is dead after he began shooting at officers trying to save two women from the fiery wreckage, police say.
A police officer from the St. John Police Department was hit once, but his bulletproof vest saved him, police say. His injuries were not life-threatening.
Police returned fire. The suspect is dead, but police couldn't immediately say if the man died of gunshot wounds, the fire or injuries suffered in the crash. An autopsy was being performed Thursday to determine the dead man's cause of death. Police were looking to inform his nearest relatives of his death before releasing his identity.
Two women survived the crash. One of the women got out on her own. Police pulled the other woman to safety from the back seat, said St. Louis County Police Officer Brian Schellman, whose department is handling the investigation.
The officers used a protective ballistics shield to fend off some of the flames to get to her, he said.
"They saved her life," Schellman said.
One of the women was hospitalized with severe burns, Schellman said. The other woman was not hurt.
The car crashed at about 2:30 a.m. Thursday at Natural Bridge and Woodson roads, which is near Lambert-St. Louis International Airport and in the city of Woodson Terrace. The car had come from nearby St. John.
Woodson Terrace Police Chief Bob Dowling said the St. John officer was on St. Charles Rock Road when he spotted a car speeding.
"That car came barreling by him like crazy," Dowling said. "It turned onto Woodson Road toward our venue. It was like a rocket."
When the officer turned onto Woodson Road, he lost sight of the car.
"The guy's long gone," Dowling said.
Soon, the St. John officer found the crash site, and two Woodson Terrace officers arrived.
"This shooting didn't happen immediately," Dowling said. "The car had crashed and it was burning. The officers called out that people are inside, we're trying to get them out. They asked for anybody with fire extinguishers that are close by to come help us."
As this was going on, one of the Woodson Terrace officers saw a man inside the burning car holding a gun.
"He saw a guy in the car raise a gun up," Dowling said. "And he yelled 'gun,' which you are trained to do. As soon as he said it, shots are being fired."
Several officers returned fire.
Dowling said he has seen many crazy things in his career in law enforcement. This one is now added to the list: Officers trying to rescue people from a car crash, "And this is the thanks they get."
"It's unique," Dowling added.
Schellman, of the St. Louis County police, said the car had crashed into a guardrail and burst into flames. The officer apparently hadn't been pursuing the speeding car, Schellman said.
Schellman said investigators are trying to determine if a crime happened in St. John before the car sped off. So far, they haven't figured out if the man was joyriding or leaving the scene of a crime. They know that the man who died had been staying in St. John, though that's not necessarily his home address.
The St. John officer who was injured in the shooting is doing well, said St. John Mayor Tom Halaska.
The mayor didn't know how long the officer has served with the St. John force. He said the chief alerted him of the injury but didn't provide a lot of detail about what led to it.
"He's one of our best officers," said Halaska.
Police Chief John R. "Rusty" Morris couldn't be reached for comment. A posting to the St. John Police Department's Facebook page said "we are both relieved and happy to report that the officer is okay and doing well. The entire police department and staff would like to thank all of our citizens for your support and concern."
The county's crime-scene unit processed the scene Thursday, with dozens of evidence markers on the pavement. The cars ended up facing west on Natural Bridge. It apparently had struck a sign and gone through a fence before slamming into the guardrail, which runs along eastbound Interstate 70.
EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this story listed an incorrect St. Louis County municipality for where the car crashed.