Investigators on Sunday were still trying to determine the cause of a Huntington Beach police helicopter crash in Newport Harbor that killed one officer and injured another.
The officer who died in Saturday night’s crash was identified as 44-year-old veteran Officer Nicholas Vella, according to the Huntington Beach Police Department. A second officer, who has not yet been identified, was released from the hospital Sunday morning.
The National Transportation Safety Board is the lead agency investigating the accident, and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department Major Accident Reconstruction Team will be conducting its own investigation, according to Jennifer Carey, the department’s public information officer.
Huntington Beach Police Chief Eric Parra said late Saturday night that the helicopter “crashed for reasons that we’re not certain of.”
No new information about the cause of the crash was available, Carey said. As of Sunday morning, the wreckage remained in the water.
“Last night it was really dark out there so they weren’t able to do much,” Carey said. Investigators have ascertained which officer was the pilot, but have not yet publicly released that information, according to Carey.
Parra described Vella as “an officer that was truly dedicated to the job and was doing what he loved doing.” Vella was a 16-year veteran of the force and had previously worked as a police officer in Laguna Beach, Parra said.
One witness described the craft as clearly in distress and at least partly out of control just before landing in the water about 10 to 20 feet offshore.
The helicopter was operated by the Huntington Beach Police Department and had been summoned, Parra said, on a “disturbance fight call” from Newport Beach, which contracts for aerial assistance as needed with the neighboring city.
The call about the crash came in about 6:30 p.m. Saturday, said Carey.
Newport Beach police were monitoring the radio broadcast and had help at the scene “instantaneously,” said Newport Beach Police Chief Jon T. Lewis, who also was at the news conference.
A witness described the minutes leading up to the crash.
“We were driving over here and we heard the pitch of the helicopter,” the unidentified witness told KCAL news. “And it sounded like a helicopter was in distress. And then when we looked at the helicopter, it was out of control. And it was obvious that the helicopter was going to go down. And it did go down and almost immediately sunk.”
Video recorded at the scene shows the craft lying on its side, mostly submerged, as rescuers work frantically. One officer was able to emerge quickly and walk with assistance onto the beach. Getting to the second took longer.
Both were taken to trauma centers.
The Huntington Beach Police Department has three helicopters and typically keeps one in operation 24 hours a day.
The two other aircraft will be grounded pending an inspection and the preliminary investigation, Parra said.
The helicopter, called HB1, went down in the vicinity of the Lido Peninsula, according to the flight-tracker website adsbexchange.com.
News helicopters hovered above the crash site, a normally sleepy neighborhood with sweeping views of Newport Harbor. A crowd gathered in the darkness to watch the rescue efforts.
“This is truly a really heartbreaking time for all of us here in Huntington Beach,” said Mayor Barbara Delgleize. “Our community values our police department, and the loss of an officer hits us all really hard.”
The Huntington Beach Police Department Air Support Unit was formed in 1968. Huntington Beach was the first city in Orange County and the fifth in the nation to use helicopters for public safety service, according to the city.
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