Veteran freelance photographer killed in helicopter crash in Port of L.A.

The passenger of a helicopter that crashed into the Port of Los Angeles on Wednesday night was a veteran freelance photographer on assignment to capture photos of a rare trio of cruise ships inside the harbor.

Michael Justice, 61, of San Pedro, and pilot Christopher Reed, 41, of Hermosa Beach, were aboard the black Robinson R-22 helicopter when it crashed near the breakwater that juts out from Cabrillo Beach, killing them. Their bodies were recovered from the aircraft’s wreckage Thursday morning.

Justice was a port photographer and had commissioned a flight on Wednesday after three cruise ships made a rare stopover at the harbor, said port spokesman Phillip Sanfield. The port, he said, doesn’t usually get a visit from three cruises at one time.

He wanted to capture the vessels in the fading sunlight, Sanfield said.


The helicopter recovered from the crash site near the Angels Gate Lighthouse at the end of the breakwater.
The helicopter recovered from the crash site near the Angels Gate Lighthouse at the end of the breakwater.
(Chris Villanueva )

Reed and Justice took off from Zamperini Field in Torrance in one of the copters registered to JJ Helicopters Inc. and flew over the harbor.

Several passengers aboard a cruise ship told authorities that the helicopter circled one of the ships three times before it went down about 5:45 p.m., Sanfield said.

Several other people in the area called 911 notifying dispatchers of the aircraft, which was believed to have crashed near the Angels Gate Lighthouse. The lighthouse sits at the end of the breakwater.


The U.S. Coast Guard and Los Angeles Port Police searched for the wreckage of the helicopter, but did not find it.

Justice and Reed never reported back to the Torrance airbase, Sanfield said.

Then on Thursday, police used sonar equipment to locate the aircraft.

Justice worked with the port since 2010 and has shot for several publications, including the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, National Geographic Adventurer and Time magazine. He photographed Mother Teresa in Calcutta.


“He was really an extended member of the harbor family,” Sanfield said. “He lived and breathed on the docks.”

Former Daily Breeze newspaper photojournalist Branimir Kvartuc said he often worked with the freelance photographer in the Torrance area.

“He had a million stories to tell, but never forced them on you,” Kvartuc said.

When Kvartuc left the newspaper for a job at Los Angeles Councilman Joe Buscaino’s office, he knew he would see Justice again.


Kvartuc often ran into Justice at the harbor, an area that Buscaino represents. During a recent conversation, the friends talked about their separate trip’s next month to Cuba and how they planned to meet up.

“It’s almost in a way ... an accomplishment as a photographer to go out doing your job,” he said.

Reed was an accomplished pilot, Los Angeles Port Police Chief Thomas Gazsi said at a news conference Thursday, adding that he “will be greatly missed.”

The Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the cause of the crash.


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4:00 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from Branimir Kvartuc.


This article was originally published at 2:50 p.m.