In Huntington Beach, California, police and community members are still devastated by the loss of Officer Nicholas Vella weeks later. The 44-year-old was killed as a passenger of a police helicopter that crashed in Newport Harbor on February 19. Vella was a 16-year law enforcement veteran who had served 14 years with the Huntington Beach Police Department and two years previously with the Laguna Beach Police Department.
Days after his death, on February 22, mourners gathered for a somber procession to honor the fallen officer. A motorcade led by nine police officers escorted the white hearse carrying Vella from the Orange County coroner’s office in Santa Ana to a funeral home in La Habra. And people continued to pay their respects throughout the following days at a makeshift memorial that had been set up in front of the Huntington Beach Police Department.
Huntington Beach Mayor Barbara Delgleize expressed her condolences to the officer’s family and colleagues following the crash.
“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.”
Huntington Beach Chief Eric Parra echoed similar sentiments in a statement released by the department.
“There are no words that can express this loss adequately,” he said. “We are deeply grieving for Officer Vella’s family, and as a police department, we grieve as well.”
Vella is survived by his wife, Kristi Tovar, and a teenage daughter.
Officials say the cause of the crash remains unknown. A spokesperson from the National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Aviation Administration said the investigation could take up to a year to find a conclusive cause.
The Huntington Beach P.D. said it will ground its two other helicopters for an inspection and preliminary investigation before they fly again.
“We will need to have the current aircraft inspected, obviously, to make sure that there’s nothing wrong with those helicopters,” Parra said. “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.”
Parra added that Vella was “an officer that was truly dedicated to the job and was doing what he loved doing.”
Police say the helicopter was responding to a “disturbance fight call” in Newport Beach when the pilot radioed that the vehicle was experiencing mechanical issues. The helicopter crashed soon after going nose-down into the water, according to an NTSB spokesperson.
Newport Beach police were on standby with lifeguards and firefighters as the helicopter maneuvered itself into empty water.
Witnesses say emergency responders and bystanders went out into the water immediately. Vella and a second officer were pulled from the wreckage. Vella was pronounced dead at a hospital. The other officer, identified as the pilot, was treated at the hospital and has since been released.
A fundraising campaign has been organized by the police department and its officers association for Vella’s family at porac.org/fundraiser/support-officer-vella-his-family.
A public memorial service has been scheduled for March 8 at the Honda Center in Anaheim. Community members and those living in surrounding areas will be able to honor Vella and pay their respects to his survivors and loved ones in person. The service will also be available to watch via livestream on the City of Huntington Beach’s YouTube channel at youtube.com/c/cityofhb. For more details, visit the Huntington Beach P.D. website at huntingtonbeachca.gov.