Huntington Beach mourns police officer killed in helicopter crash
A cold rain fell in Santa Ana early Tuesday afternoon as mourners gathered for a procession to honor Huntington Beach Officer Nicholas Vella, who was killed in a police helicopter crash over the weekend.
Moments before the somber motorcade began, the clouds broke and the rain cleared. Nine police officers led the procession out of the Orange County coroner’s office on Santa Ana Boulevard and onto Shelton Street. Bagpipes played as the white hearse carrying Vella was guided onto the street.
“It was kind of magical,” Huntington Beach Mayor Barbara Delgleize said of the weather clearing just as the procession got underway. “I don’t mean it in a fun way; I mean it in a respectful … and … reverent way. [Vella] was just too young.”
Vella, 44, was the passenger in the police helicopter that crashed in Newport Harbor near the Lido Peninsula on Saturday night. He was a 14-year veteran of the Huntington Beach Police Department and was previously a member of the Laguna Beach Police Department.
Vella is survived by his wife, Kristi Tovar, and a teenage daughter.
A second officer involved in the crash was released from the hospital Sunday and was identified as the pilot. An investigation into the cause of the crash is underway by the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration, though Police Department spokeswoman Jennifer Carey said Tuesday that it could be up to a year before the cause could be known for certain.
The helicopter was en route to provide assistance in what is known as a “disturbance fight call” from Newport Beach, which contracts for aerial services as needed from the neighboring city.
“This is truly really a heartbreaking time for all of us here in Huntington Beach,” Delgleize said the night of the incident. “First and foremost, I want to say and give our deepest sympathies to the family of Officer Vella. I know I speak on behalf for myself and all of the City Council and the entire city of Huntington Beach when I say we are praying for you, and we are here for you whenever you need.”
The Huntington Beach Police Department has two other helicopters besides the one that crashed Saturday. Both will remain grounded pending an inspection and the preliminary investigation.
“We will need to have the current aircraft inspected, obviously, to make sure that there’s nothing wrong with those helicopters,” Huntington Beach Police Chief Eric Parra said after the crash. “We do regular maintenance — it’s ongoing maintenance — and there’s a schedule that is comprehensive with respect to the maintenance on our helicopters, so I don’t know what occurred, but we’re going to pull those in. They won’t fly until we do the inspection … moving forward, we’ll put in practices in place to ensure that there’s no future incidents that are similar to this.”
The call about the crash came in about 6:30 p.m. Saturday. Newport Beach police were monitoring the radio broadcast, and Newport Beach Police Chief Jon Lewis said a team of lifeguards, firefighters and police officers were on standby.
Newport Beach Councilman Noah Blom said he was out on the water Saturday night when the crash occurred.
Blom said he heard a “crazy noise” from above the boat when he saw the helicopter coming down. He said it seemed as if the pilot was guiding “a missile” down into the waters near Shorebird Restaurant on Newport Boulevard.
“It didn’t just fall out of the sky,” said Blom. The pilot “was trying to guide it into the waters where no one was.”
Blom said that after the helicopter crashed into the water, he saw the awaiting first responders jump into action immediately. The boat he was on got out of the way of the rescue operation and tied up near Nobu restaurant.
“It was almost the opposite of what you’d see in a movie. Everyone was running towards it,” said Blom. “It was nice to see everybody trying to help as quickly as they could.”
By Sunday, a makeshift memorial honoring Vella had taken shape in front of the Huntington Beach Police Department.
The Police Department, along with its officers union, shared a fundraising campaign Tuesday to help support Vella’s family.
Flowers decorated a police vehicle in front of the station with a picture of Vella. People could be found mingling there Tuesday morning, looking over the memorial.
Jack and Bina Balzano of Huntington Beach, family friends of the Vellas, dropped by the memorial site Tuesday afternoon to pay their respects. Bina Balzano, who went to high school with Vella’s aunt, said she and her husband have known the Vella family for years.
“All of his wonderful traits go back to the way he was brought up,” Bina Balzano said. “It’s not surprising that he chose this profession, because it was in his nature to be of service. But he was a wonderful, fun-loving guy too.”
Balzano said the last time she saw him was in November when they attended a memorial service in Whittier.
“We were talking after the service and whatnot,” she said. “I said, ‘You’re in Huntington, we’re in Huntington; let’s get together for lunch sometime.’ Well, we didn’t have enough time to get together for lunch. But we’re trying to be positive.
“Some people live to be in their 90s or 100 and don’t leave behind all of the good that Nick did in 44 years.”
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