A Niagara County sheriff's deputy was killed shortly after 3 a.m. today when his patrol car struck a utility pole as he rushed to assist a Lockport police officer who was shot three times while checking a stopped car, authorities said.

Deputy Jeffrey A. Incardona, 29, of East Avenue died when his propane-powered patrol car went out of control on a curve and crashed into a utility pole on Niagara Street, just east of Bristol Avenue, and burst into flames.

He was responding to assist Officer Steven Biles, who was shot in the abdomen and legs. Biles, 38, was listed in stable condition prior to surgery in Erie County Medical Center, Buffalo.

Biles was shot after he approached a suspicious vehicle on Elmwood Avenue, on the east side of the city. Someone inside the car pulled out a gun and shot him before driving off, officials said.

The officer was shot at close range with a handgun, police said. Two bullets, one in the leg and the other in the abdomen, passed through his body, and he was undergoing surgery late this morning for the removal of the third bullet, which lodged in his leg.

Biles was walking toward the car when he was momentarily distracted by something in a nearby field, according to Police Capt. Jeffrey St. Onge, and was shot when he turned his attention back toward the car.

"He saw some movement in the field," St. Onge said. "He could see a shadow or something coming out of the field."

Biles was shot with a handgun of an undetermined caliber, authorities said. It was unclear whether the shots came from the car or the field, according to St. Onge.

Following the shooting, Biles crawled back, approximately three car lengths, to his patrol car and radioed for help. Before undergoing surgery, he told colleagues that he thought he fired four shots at his assailant, but he didn't know if he wounded him.

Biles apparently did not sense he was in danger before the shooting, according to Lockport Mayor Thomas Rotondo.

"If he had suspected something was wrong, he probably would have radioed for help right away," Rotondo said. "In this case, he apparently didn't suspect there was a problem."

Niagara County Sheriff Francis Giles today called Incardona, an eight-year veteran of the Sheriff's Department, a "shining star."

"I just pray to God he died on impact," said Giles, adding that Incardona was severely burned.

Incardona, who is survived by his wife and three young sons, was pronounced dead at the scene by Niagara County Coroner Kenneth V. Lederhouse. An autopsy was to be conducted this morning.

Giles said that all the sheriff's patrol cars have been powered with propane for the past 15 years and that propane costs about one-third the price of gasoline. He said the National Traffic Safety Board and the county's risk manager will investigate to determine whether the propane exploded on impact, although he noted that the propane tank and gas line had not ruptured.

At about 7 a.m., the smell of propane was still in the air at the scene of the crash on Niagara Street, about two miles from where the shooting took place, and workers were cleaning up scattered pieces of glass around the 40-foot electrical pole struck by the deputy's car.

"I was sleeping, and about 3 a.m. I heard a crash," said Tina Person, who lives at 294 Niagara St., across the street from the accident. "I looked out my bedroom window, and the whole police car was full of flames."

The pole was charred from the flames and was splintered and bent about six feet from its base.

Long skid marks could be traced from one side of the residential street, across the center line and then swerving into the pole on the opposite side of the street.

Sheriff's investigators were checking neighbors' claims that the patrol car could have been traveling at a high speed over nearby railroad tracks.

Amherst police later this morning stopped a car on Millersport Highway matching the description of the vehicle being sought by Lockport police, a dark-colored car, possibly a Buick or Oldsmobile.

However the occupants were later released by Lockport police after questioning.

About 30 officers from the Niagara County Major Crimes Task Force were looking for the vehicle late this morning, aided by two State Police helicopters. Police believe at least two people were in the car when it raced from the shooting scene.

Biles was checking what he thought was a disabled car. At first, he thought no one was in the car, but then he asked the occupant for his license and registration. Just before being shot, Biles apparently was distracted by a shadow he saw in a nearby field.

The wounded officer was treated and stabilized in Lockport Memorial Hospital before being flown to Erie County Medical Center by helicopter, a hospital official said.

News Staff Reporter Gene Warner contributed to this article.