LOWER EAST SIDE — Police are searching for a gunman who shot and injured an NYPD officer patrolling a Lower East Side housing complex early Thursday — with the officer's protective vest stopping the bullet from likely killing him, authorities said.
The suspect, who is still on the loose, fired at the officer from mere feet away during a pursuit in the building's stairwell.
The shooting occurred about 3:40 a.m. between the 18th and 19th floors of the Seward Park Extension building at 64 Essex St., near Grand Street, police said.
Officer Brian Groves, 30, was conducting a "vertical patrol" of the NYC Housing Authority building with his partner, Eric Corniel, 31, when they saw the suspect holding a silver handgun after they entered a stairwell on the 22nd floor, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said.
"Gun!" Groves warned Corniel, according to Kelly.
Groves had followed the suspect down three flights of stairs when the gunman turned and fired a single shot from about 8 feet away, striking the officer in the middle of his chest near his heart, Kelly explained.
Groves returned fire, squeezing off four shots, and continued to follow the suspect before collapsing on the 15th floor, the commissioner said. It was unclear if the suspect was struck by the gunfire.
"He would have almost certainly been killed if it wasn't for his bullet-resistant vest," Kelly said at a press conference Thursday morning at Bellevue Hospital, where the officer was in stable condition. "Thank God for Kevlar. It clearly saved the officer's life."
The bullet lodged into his vest at the sternum, Kelly said, and doctors checked to make sure his heart wasn't bruised as a result of the trauma.
Dr. Eli Kleinman, a surgeon at Bellevue, said Groves' chest was bruised but he is expected to recover.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at the news conference that Groves, a husband and father of two young girls who has a birthday later this month, was the ninth cop shot this year.
"This certainly was a close call, one that too many New York City police officers have experienced this year," Bloomberg said. "Thank God they will see their father soon and they will be able to grow up with the love that every child should have around them."
Groves had been conducting the standard patrol due to reports of drug sales and disorderly activity inside the building, the commissioner added.
The suspect is described as a man in his 20s who stands 5 feet 9 inches tall with his hair braided in corn rows. He was wearing a black T-shirt and red basketball shorts with tan stripes, police said.
The NYPD released a sketch of the suspect Thursday afternoon.
The shooting comes a day after an MTA cop, John Barnett, was stabbed in the left eye by Edgar Owens, police said. Authorities described Owens as being emotionally disturbed and having a history of attacking police officers. Barnett, who shot and killed Owens, was recovering at Jamaica Hospital.
Hours after Thursday's shooting, a portion of Essex Street remained closed to traffic as cops and NYPD helicopters combed the neighborhood for the gunman.
Frances Rodriguez, 78, said cops were "knocking on every door." The manhunt included an aerial search as well, she said.
"There was a helicopter around for two hours and I couldn't sleep," Rodriguez, who has lived in the building for 40 years, said.
Residents of the building described hearing the chaotic shooting early Thursday.
"I heard two or three shots," said Shawn Stucker, 23, who lives on the building's 15th floor.
Tenants added that the building has a history of criminal activity, making them feel unsafe.
"My mom got mugged seven months ago," said resident David Idels, 53, who noted that she was knocked unconscious and had her wallet stolen. "She was alone and a person punched her in the face."
Idels and Stucker both pointed to what they said was a lack of surveillance cameras in the building.
"We don't have cameras," Stucker said. "We need cameras."
Alan Neuhauser, Patrick Hedlund and Wil Cruz contributed to this story.