NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. (AP) — Authorities were investigating Sunday the cause of a police helicopter crash along the Southern California coast that killed one officer and sent another to the hospital with critical injuries.

The Huntington Beach officers were responding to a disturbance in the neighboring city of Newport Beach around 6:30 p.m. Saturday when the helicopter hit a narrow strip of water between Lido Isle and the Balboa Peninsula. Witnesses said boaters rushed to pull the officers out of the helicopter, which landed upside down in shallow water.

Nicholas Vella, 44, a 14-year veteran with the police department, died in the crash, Police Chief Eric Parra said at a Saturday night news conference. He leaves behind behind a wife and daughter.

Word of his death drew dozens of officers and first responders, who formed a line outside the hospital to salute his casket as it was escorted by squad cars to the Orange County coroner’s office.

Vella “was truly dedicated to his job and was doing what he loved doing,” the chief said.

“This is a difficult night for all of us and I would ask for your prayers and support as we support our officers’ families.”


The second officer, who is a 16-year veteran with the department, was released from the hospital Sunday “but there’s still a lot of recovery ahead,” police spokeswoman Jennifer Carey told the Orange County Register.

It wasn’t immediately clear who was the pilot.

The National Transportation Safety Board and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department are investigating the crash.

A witness told KCAL-TV he saw the helicopter struggling moments before the crash.

“We were driving over here and we heard the pitch of the helicopter and it sounded like the helicopter was in distress,” said the witness, who spoke to the station on condition of anonymity. “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.”