An off-duty lifeguard recalls the emotional rescue attempt after a police helicopter with two officers on board crashed into the water in Newport Beach Saturday night.
Andrew Belden was the first person to jump into the water, immediately diving in to try to rescue the officers on board.
“A lifeguard’s worst nightmare is someone drowning. The idea is you want to prevent that from happening and when you have the copilot saying, ‘Help me, my partner is down there.' You can only do so much. I did the best I could do. I was right there when it crashed. I wish the outcome was different,” Belden said.
The 20-year, off-duty Newport Beach lifeguard was just feet away when the Huntington Beach police helicopter spiraled out of control and crashed into the water. One officer was killed and another was injured.
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“As I arrived, the first pilot bobbed up and he was screaming, as you could imagine,” Belden recalled. “He just kept saying, ‘please, help my partner, my partner is still down there’.”
He says he pulled the first officer to safety before diving to find officer Nicholas Vella.
Witnesses captured the intense moment on video.
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With little to no visibility underwater, the rescue was impossible.
“Immediately realized I needed a mask, I needed a light, so I just started screaming, 'Does anyone have a mask,' at the top of my lungs,” Belden said. “Every time I would go down, I would maybe find a hatch or the right area, then I'd have to go up for air and start all over again.
“I started screaming, does anyone have air? The pilot gave me his spare air. He said, ‘I have spare air.’ I said how many breaths do I have on this. He said three to five breaths, max. I said, ‘Oh God.’”
Meanwhile, more resources were arriving. First responders were pulling the helicopter to shore with officer Vella still in it.
“I’m just so sorry for both families,” Belden said. “I think it must’ve been strategic to crash it in shallow waters, it gives them the best chance, they’re avoiding houses, boats, it was absolutely heroic what they did.”
“He died in the line of duty, he died trying to protect people and that’s the ultimate sacrifice,” Belden said.
Officer Vella, 44, is survived by his wife and teenage daughter.
A memorial in his honor has been growing, with flowers and messages left thanking him for his service.
The surviving officer is back home with his family.