Chaos and violence turned to tragedy as hundreds of white nationalists, neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members - planning to stage what they described as their largest rally in decades to "take America back" - clashed with counterprotesters in the streets and a car ploughed into crowds, leaving one person dead and 19 others injured.

Hours later, two state police officers died when their helicopter crashed at the outskirts of town. Officials identified them as Berke M.M. Bates of Quinton, Virginia, who was the pilot, and H. Jay Cullen of Midlothian, Virginia, who was a passenger. State police said their Bell 407 helicopter was assisting with the unrest in Charlottesville. Bates died one day before his 41st birthday; Cullen was 48.

Governor Terry McAuliffe (D), who had declared a state of emergency, said that he had a message for "all the white supremacists and the Nazis who came into Charlottesville today: Go home. You are not wanted in this great commonwealth".

In an emergency meeting, the Charlottesville City Council voted unanimously to give police the power to enact a curfew or otherwise restrict assembly as necessary to protect public safety.

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Video recorded at the scene of the car crash shows a 2010 grey Dodge Challenger accelerating into crowds on a pedestrian area, sending bodies flying - and then reversing at high speed, hitting yet more people. Witnesses said the street was filled with people opposed to the white nationalists who had come to town bearing Confederate flags and anti-Semitic epithets. A 32-year-old woman was killed, police said.

James Alex Fields.
James Alex Fields.

The driver of the Challenger, James Alex Fields, 20, of Ohio, was arrested and charged with one count of murder, three counts of malicious wounding, and one count of hit-and-run attended failure to stop with injury. He is being held without bail and is scheduled to be arraigned tomorrow. Police made three other arrests in connection with violence earlier in the day, on charges of assault and battery, disorderly conduct and carrying a concealed weapon.

Field's mother, Samantha Bloom, told AP that she knew her son was attending a rally in Virginia but didn't know it was a white supremacist rally. "I thought it had something to do with Trump. Trump's not a white supremacist," Bloom said.

"He had an African-American friend so ... ," she said before her voice trailed off. She added that she'd be surprised if her son's views were that far right.

Bloom, who became visibly upset as she learned of the injuries and deaths at the rally, said she and her son had just moved to the Toledo area from the northern Kentucky city of Florence.

Fields's father was killed by a drunk driver a few months before the boy's birth, according to an uncle. His father left him money that the uncle kept in a trust until Fields reached adulthood. "When he turned 18, he demanded his money, and that was the last I had any contact with him."

People fly into the air as a vehicle hits protesters demonstrating against a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville. Photo / Ryan M. Kelly of the Daily Progress via AP
People fly into the air as a vehicle hits protesters demonstrating against a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville. Photo / Ryan M. Kelly of the Daily Progress via AP

The uncle, who saw Fields mostly at family gatherings, described his nephew as "not really friendly, more subdued". Angela Taylor, a spokeswoman for the University of Virginia Medical Centre, said 19 others were brought to the hospital in the early afternoon after the car barrelled through the pedestrian centre. Five were in critical condition. Another 14 people were hurt in street brawls.

Earlier, police evacuated a downtown park as rallygoers and counterprotesters traded blows and hurled bottles and chemical irritants at one another, putting an end to the rally before it officially began. Dozens of the white nationalists in Charlottesville were wearing red Make America Great Again hats. Despite the decision to quash the rally, clashes continued on side streets and throughout downtown.

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Chan Williams, 22, was among the counterprotesters at the pedestrian centre, chanting "Black Lives Matter" and "Whose streets? Our streets!" The marchers blocked traffic, but Williams said drivers weren't annoyed. Instead, she said, they waved or honked in support. So when she heard a car engine rev up and saw the people in front of her dodging a moving car, she didn't know what to think.

"I saw the car hit bodies, legs in the air. You try to grab the people closest to you and take shelter." Williams and friend George Halliday ducked into a shop with an open door and called their mothers immediately. An hour later, the two were still visibly upset.

"I just saw shoes on the road," Halliday, 20, said. "It all happened in two seconds."

- Washington Post, AP