NEWPORT BEACH (CBSLA) — A Huntington Beach Police Department helicopter crashed into the water in Newport Beach Saturday in front of dozens of witnesses lining the beach. One officer was killed, while the other was left injured.
First reports of the incident came in just after 6:30 p.m. at El Paseo Street. Both officers on board were rescued from the wreckage and transported to nearby trauma centers.
A witness at the scene detailed how several civilian boats rushed to the scene of the wreckage in an attempt to assist the officers who were trapped onboard the aircraft. Footage from the scene also showed beachgoers and officers on hand working to open the helicopter doors and rescue the pilots.
The witness who spoke with CBS reporter Rick Montanez preferred to remain unnamed, though he detailed the moments leading up to the crash landing to CBS reporters.
"We were driving over here and we heard the pitch of the helicopter and it sounded like the helicopter was in distress," he said. "When we looked at the helicopter it was out of control. It was obvious the helicopter was gonna go down. It did go down, and almost immediately sunk."
With Sky9 Chopper overhead, the helicopter could be seen in the Newport Bay waters between Lido Isle and the Balboa Peninsula, somewhere between 10 to 20 feet off the shoreline.
In the moments following the crash, Huntington Beach Police Department tweeted confirmation that their aircraft was involved in the crash, "We can confirm that our police helicopter, HB-1, crash landed in the Newport Beach area. Rescue efforts are underway & more information will be released when available."
During a press conference held Saturday evening, Huntington Beach Police Chief Eric Parra disclosed that one of the officers, a 14-year veteran, died as a result of injuries suffered in the crash. He was identified as 44-year-old Nicholas Vella. They also noted that the other officer, a 16-year-veteran, is in stable condition.
That second officer, 50, was released from the hospital on Saturday morning. At the time of the collision, he was the pilot, while Vella was acting as the tactical flight officer.
"This is a difficult night for all of us. I would ask for your prayers and support, as we support our officer's family as we grieve through this," Parra continued.
Chief John Lewis, of the Newport Beach Police Department detailed how his crews were on hand to assist when the helicopter initially made entry into the harbor.
Vella leaves behind a wife and a teenage daughter.
Chief Parra mentioned Sunday that he had spent time with Vella's family following the incident. "I'm not going to say they're doing well," he said, "but, as well as anybody would do under these tragic circumstances."
Circumstances surrounding what caused the crash remained unclear as an investigation ensued. The National Transportation Safety Board is one of the agencies investigating the crash along with the Orange County Sheriff's Department, Major Accident Reconstruction Team.
As of 8:30 a.m. on Saturday, the helicopter, which officers refer to as HB-1, could still be seen in the water. The process to remove the wreckage from the water began Sunday afternoon at around 2 p.m.
At a press conference on Sunday, NTSB officials noted that the wreckage would be taken to a facility in Phoenix, Ariz. where it would be further investigated in a more forensic nature.
They also noted that the primary investigation revealed that the pilot had made brief call indicating that they were experiencing mechanical issues, before following up with a call that they were going down.
"Right now, it appears to be a nose-down descent into the water," NTSB Spokesperson Elliott Simpson continued.
HBPD Chief Parra spoke again Sunday during the NTSB press conference, where he remarked that Vella's fellow officers, while struggling, were returning to their normal day-to-day operations.
"Our community has lost a hero. Our officers learned of the incident through our communications," he said. "Once I became aware of it, we put that out to everybody and we had them come in. We brought in outside agencies to support our department while our officers were able to mourn."
"We are returning back to normal operations now, if you can call anything normal at this point in time," he said.
CBS reporters were able to obtain home security footage from a residence in the area that showed the helicopter struggling to maintain height before spiraling out of control, where it eventually landed in the Newport Beach waters. Witnesses at the scene described hearing "metal on metal" moments before the crash.
Walter Havekorst, one of the many residents who lives just hundreds of feet from the scene of the crash detailed what witnessed Saturday evening to CBS reporters Sunday morning.
"I heard the helicopter loud noise go down, like the silencer went off," he said. "What happened at the time was you could hear it spin and then all of the sudden you could hear a splash."
"The houses all shook, so everyone on the street heard it. Everyone screamed, 'Helicopter down!' and then we knew something was wrong," he continued, mentioning how almost everyone in the neighborhood ran to try and help the officers
Havekorst also said that he heard Vella was underwater for at least 14 minutes after the helicopter crashed.
Huntington Beach Police posted a remembrance for their fallen brother via Facebook Saturday evening, which read:
"It is with tremendous sorrow that we announce the passing of Officer Nicholas Vella, a 14-year veteran of HBPD. Officer Vella died this evening after our police helicopter, HB-1, crashed into the waters off Newport while responding to a call for service. A second officer was injured and is in stable condition. Officer Vella leaves behind a wife and daughter. He served the community of Huntington Beach with honor and dignity. Please join us in extending prayers to Officer Vella's family. We want to thank the community and our law enforcement partners for your support during this difficult time."
Parra indicated that the helicopter was en route to a "disturbance fight call" in Newport Beach at the time of the crash.
A statement from HBPD Saturday provided further details on the disturbance call, which indicated it was a "priority call of a fight in progress near 18th Street and Balboa Boulevard at approximately 6:25 p.m."
He also noted that none of the department's other aircraft would be flying until the investigation into HB-I was completed, "We need to have the current aircraft inspected to make sure there's nothing wrong."
The helicopter is reportedly one of three that operate out of HBPD, all of which are turbine-powered. HBPD helicopters serve Huntington Beach, Newport Beach and the Costa Mesa areas.
Officers, paramedics and other first responders joined in a procession for Vella as his body was transported to the Orange County Coroner's Office at around 11:20, on the three-and-a-half mile drive from Orange County Global Medical Center.
Huntington Beach Mayor Barbara Delgleize also spoke at the press conference, where she said, "This is truly, really a heartbreaking time for all of us here in Huntington Beach. First and foremost, I want to say and give our deepest sympathies to the family of Officer Vella. I know I speak on behalf of myself, all of City Council and the entire City of Huntington Beach when I say we are praying for you and we are here for you - whatever you need."
"Our community values our police department and the loss of an officer hits us all really hard," she continued. "This tragic accident serves as a reminder of the danger and the risks that our police officers put themselves in on a daily basis to protect our community."
A memorial for Officer Vella could be seen growing throughout the day outside of Huntington Beach Police Department's headquarters, as residents and other local law enforcement agencies and officers visited to pay their respects to their fallen brother.
On Sunday afternoon, California Governor Gavin Newsom released a statement on Officer Vella's death, which read:
"Jennifer and I are deeply saddened by the tragic loss of Officer Vella. Our thoughts are with his family, friends and the entire Huntington Beach Police Department. Officer Vella's bravery and commitment to protecting his community will not be forgotten."
Los Angeles Police Department Chief Michel Moore also offered his condolences via Twitter, "We mourn the loss of Huntington Beach Police Officer Nicholas Vella. Our thoughts are with his department and Officer Vella's family, friends and colleagues. Blessed are the Peacemakers. May he rest in eternal peace while our profession holds the watch."
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