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Huntington Beach mourns fallen Officer Nicholas Vella

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A cold rain fell in Santa Ana early Tuesday afternoon as mourners gathered for a procession to honor Huntington Beach Police Department Officer Nicholas Vella, who died over the weekend in a police helicopter crash.

But 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,” said Huntington Beach Mayor Barbara Delgleize 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, died when the police chopper he was a passenger in crashed in Newport Harbor — near the Lido Peninsula — 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 on Sunday and was identified as the pilot. An investigation on the exact cause of the crash is currently underway by the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration, though police department spokeswoman Jennifer Carey said Tuesday 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.

Huntington Beach Police Chief Eric Parra salutes as the body of fallen Huntington Beach Police Officer Nicholas Vella passes.
(Raul Roa)

“Our community values our police department, and the loss of an officer hits us all really hard. This tragic accident serves as a reminder of the danger and the risk that our police officers put themselves in on a daily basis to protect our community. Every day, our police officers are out there to protect all of us in our community, no questions asked, when called upon.”

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.

“What we’ll need to do is 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 at around 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 he was a passenger on when he saw the helicopter coming down. Blom described the pilot as “[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.”

Retired Huntington Beach Police Officer Victoria Shroyer hugs Fire Department Battalion Chief Jeff Lopez before a hearse carrying the body of Officer Nicholas Vella arrives at funeral home in La Habra.
(Raul Roa )

Blom said that as soon as 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. 

Tributes to Vella were shared by neighboring police departments and local dignitaries through social media.

“It is with tremendous sorrow that we announce the passing of Officer Nicholas Vella, a 14-year veteran of the Huntington Beach Police Department and former officer of the Laguna Beach Police Department,” Laguna Beach police wrote in an Instagram post. “… He served the community of Huntington Beach with honor and dignity. Please join us in extending prayers to Officer Vella’s family.”

The Huntington Beach Police Department, along with the department’s union, also publicly released an account for monetary donations to help support Vella’s family on Tuesday.

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.

Family friends of the Vellas, Jack and Bina Balzano of Huntington Beach, dropped by the memorial site on 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, her voice soft as she spoke of the officer. “It’s not surprising that he chose this profession because it was in his nature to be of service. But he was 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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