SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) _ A policeman was hailed as a hero after he apparently steered his spinning helicopter to the only vacant spot in a heavily congested area, dying in the crash along with his passenger, an aircraft mechanic.

``The pilot purposely pushed the (helicopter) into the ground because it was his only choice to avoid the inhabitants,'' said Police Chief Bill Lansdowne. The copter came to rest Monday near on-ramps to busy Interstate 880.

Neither the pilot nor the mechanic were identified by police, pending notification of their relatives.

Witnesses said the police helicopter, which was grounded over the weekend, was spinning before it crashed. Others said it appeared to be smoking at the back as people on the ground ran for cover.

``We heard a noise, a popping sound. It looked like it lost its rear rotor,'' said witness Robert Mannia.

Lansdowne said he did not know why the 5-year-old helicopter had been grounded over the weekend.