Newport Beach, CA – Huntington Beach Police Department (HBPD) Officer Nicholas Vella died in the line of duty Saturday night after the police helicopter he and his partner were using to respond to the scene of a disturbance crashed into Newport Beach harbor.
The Newport Beach Fire Department (NBFD) said the incident occurred at 6:34 p.m. on Feb. 19, KTTV reported.
HPD Officer Vella, 44, and his 50-year-old partner were inside the helicopter responding to a report of a disturbance in progress in the area of Balboa Boulevard and 18th Street in Newport Beach when one of them reported they were experiencing a mechanical problem.
The aircraft “crash-landed” in the water between the Balboa and Lido peninsulas approximately 20 feet offshore a short while later, The Press-Enterprise reported.
“Right now, it appears to be a nose-down descent into the water,” National Transportation Safety Board spokesperson Elliott Simpson told the Los Angeles Times.
“We usually have a lot of helicopters going around,” resident Alex Burchinal told The Press-Enterprise. “It just had a higher pitch to it, didn’t sound right. I looked outside, saw it going in circles and saw it take off southwest and then I heard it fall and crash (into the water).”
Another witness said it was clear the helicopter was in distress, the Los Angeles Times reported.
“It was out of control,” the witness recounted. “It was obvious that the helicopter was going to go down. And it did go down and almost immediately sunk.”
A multitude of first responders immediately rushed to the scene.
Several civilians also jumped into the water to help, KTTV reported.
“We had people there instantaneously,” Newport Beach Police Chief Jon Lewis told The Press-Enterprise. “We had rescue personnel that consisted of police officers, firefighters and lifeguards.”
Investigators said two blades separated from the helicopter during the crash, KTTV reported.
First responders frantically tried to rescue the officers from the aircraft, which was lying on its side, mostly submerged, according to the Los Angeles Times.
One of the injured officers was freed from the wreckage fairly quickly and was assisted to the beach while rescuers worked to reach his partner.
The first officer, a 50-year-old, 16-year veteran of the HBPD, was rushed to a local trauma center, where he remained until being released the following morning, KTTV reported.
The second officer, 14-year HBPD veteran Officer Vella, did not survive the crash.
He leaves behind a wife and daughter, HBPD Chief Eric Parra said during an emotional press conference, according to KTTV.
The Orange County Sheriff’s Office Major Accident Investigation Team and the NTSB are handling the ongoing investigation into the fatal crash.
The investigation will likely take 12 to 18 months to complete, according to the Los Angeles Times.
“We look at not only what happened but we try to figure out why it happened,” NTSB spokesperson Eric Weiss explained.
Weiss said investigators will consider mechanical, human, and environmental factors and what roles they may have played.
“By figuring out why it happened, you can maybe prevent future accidents,” he told the Los Angeles Times.
The incident occurred during dry weather and calm wind conditions, according to The Press-Enterprise.
Chief Parra said the rest of the HPBD’s helicopters have been grounded for inspections.
Officer Vella served two years with the Laguna Beach Police Department (LGPD) prior to joining the HBPD 14 years ago, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page.
He was “truly dedicated to his job” and “loved what he was doing,” Chief Parra said.
“There are no words that can express this loss adequately,” the chief told KTTV. “We are deeply grieving for Officer Vella’s family, and as a police department, we grieve as well.”
Huntington Beach Mayor Barbara Delgleize said the community is devastated over the loss of Officer Vella, the Los Angeles Times reported.
“This is truly a really heartbreaking time for all of us here in Huntington Beach,” Delgleize said. “Our community values our police department, and the loss of an officer hits us all really hard.”
The Riverside Police Department sends our condolences tonight to Fallen Officer Nicholas Vella, his family, and members of his Huntington Beach Police Department family. pic.twitter.com/R6vSiCgMZx
— City of Riverside Police Department (@RiversidePolice) February 20, 2022
This is clip @HBPoliceDept Officer Nick Vella shot for me when he and Mark Wersching took me for helicopter ride while covering a 2019 Veterans Day story. Nick’s on left controlling the camera. Condolences to all of Nick’s colleagues & loved ones. pic.twitter.com/FWeUV1Q8LL
— Chip Yost (@ChipYost) February 20, 2022
— OC Scanner (@OC_Scanner) February 20, 2022
Officer Vella served our community with honor & dignity. The display of love & appreciation we have seen over the last 24 hours has been overwhelming but fitting for someone as great as Nick. We continue to thank everyone for their kindness as we mourn the loss of our brother. pic.twitter.com/tDtTmL5tpy
— Huntington Beach PD (@HBPoliceDept) February 21, 2022
Our thoughts and prayers are with the family of Huntington Beach Police Department Officer Nicholas Vella, both blood and blue. Thank you for your service.
Rest easy, hero. We’ll hold the line from here.