Former Orange County resident killed in Ethiopian Airlines crash was en route to help others
Matt Vecere packed one button-down shirt and one blazer.
It was Friday evening, and Vecere had just boarded a flight from LAX to Washington, D.C., part of a multi-layover trip to Nairobi, Kenya, where he’d spend a week at a United Nations summit on the environment. Once there, he’d enter the suit-and-tie arena of international politics to advocate for air-quality monitors to be placed in countries that lack them.
Vecere, a Long Beach resident, wore his only pair of slacks on the plane. He wasn’t, after all, a suit guy.
“That’s all he brought for a week,” said Tim Jewell, a coworker and office-mate at IQ Air, an air-filtration company in La Mirada. “He traveled light.”
Vecere would never button the shirt; he’d never wear the blazer.
After another layover, he boarded Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 early Sunday morning, heading from Addis Ababa to Nairobi. Six minutes after taking off, that plane crashed, killing the crew and all 157 passengers.
What caused the plane to crash — the second Boeing 737 MAX disaster in less than six months — remains under investigation, though the aerospace company said in a statement that it “still has full confidence” in the aircraft.
But one thing seems certain: The effect of this crash will not only be the lives lost. It will be the voids they leave, among families, friends, coworkers. This is the story of one such void — they one left by Vecere. He was, friends and coworkers say, a good man the world will miss.
“I texted him that I was proud of him,” Jewell said. “That was the last thing I ever said to him. I’m glad I told him that.”
Vecere, 43, grew up in Sea Isle City, a beach town in south New Jersey. As a kid, he was an avid surfer, his mother, Donna Vecere, said in a statement.
So perhaps it wasn’t surprising that about 12 years ago, he made his way to Southern California.
He bounced along the coast, his friends said, living in San Clemente, Huntington Beach and, as of last year, Long Beach.
Vecere lived near North Beach, in San Clemente, from 2008 to 2010, rooming with two other surfers. They worked at Catalyst surf shop together, said Jeff Coyle, one of those former roommates.
They’d wake up early, Coyle said, and surf before work. After their shifts, they’d hangout; they’d have a few beers.
“We were all in our mid-to-late 20s, surfers,” Coyle said. “We became really good friends. He was a good dude and a great surfer.”
But he was more than that.
“He was a humanitarian,” Coyle added.
Cassidy Kennedy, another San Clemente pal from a decade ago, remembered Vecere inspiring her to help support CARE, a nonprofit that works with women and girls in developing countries hard-hit by poverty.
“He was doing so many good things,” she said, “it made you want to do good things, too.”
Activism and helping people became an ever-more central part of his life, Coyle said. And as he moved through his 30s, he wanted to write more, to pursue other passions.
“Matt was passionate about the environment, civil rights, social and environmental justice, and advocating for those less fortunate,” his mother said in a statement. “His passion turned to direct action, rolling up his sleeves to serve causes where he could make a tangible difference.”
He left Catalyst and began working in L.A. Coyle, for his part, moved in with his girlfriend. And the surfer house broke up. Vecere moved to Huntington Beach, and then to Fourth Street, in Long Beach.
Coyle and Vecere stayed in touch. But it’d been about a year since they spoke, Coyle said.
“I wish I would have talked to him more,” he said. “But I don’t know what I’d say to him. I don’t know. You’d never expect that when you’re talking to someone, it’d be the last time.”
Vecere’s life, meanwhile, changed in more ways than one the year he left the surfer house.
In January 2010, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck Haiti — devastating the island nation. Vecere dropped everything to head there and help.
That first visit, his IQ Air coworkers said, sparked a love affair with the tiny Caribbean country.
He’d return there frequently over the years. He worked with an orphanage there. On one trip, with the help of his IQ Air colleagues, he brought buckets to help them filter water.
“He built a network there, kind of a family,” Jewell said. “He built a home away from home there.”
But it was his most recent trip to Haiti, from which he returned two weeks ago, that, in a way, put him on Flight 302.
IQ Air declined the invitation.
The company, based in Switzerland but with its North American offices in La Mirada, makes air filters for homes and offices. But it also has an air-monitor network. That network works to install air monitors — not unlike those used by the South Coast Air Quality Management District around Southern California — in countries that don’t have them.
A month ago, it received an invite to the U.N.’s Environment Assembly, a weeklong summit that began Monday.
The company, at first, didn’t have anyone to go.
But then Vecere, who worked at IQ Air as a marketing writer for the past two years, made another trip to Haiti. This time, he decided, he’d bring some of his company’s air filtration systems along. The orphanage, among other groups, could use one.
“Our CEO said, ‘You’re pretty good at this,’” said Tiffany Allegretti, IQ Air’s public relations manager. “She asked if he wanted to go speak to the U.N.”
But IQ Air had already rejected the invite.
So on Thursday, March 7, Allegretti emailed the company’s contact at the U.N. to see if they could still attend.
She heard back Friday morning.
“He said they’d love to have us,” Allegretti recalled.
Vecere, 43, was ecstatic.
Allegretti and Jewell — the two who knew him best at the company — were ecstatic for him.
“This is what he was passionate about,” Allegretti said.
When they met two years ago, Allegretti remembered, her first impression was that he was handsome. But he quickly revealed, she added, that he was more than just good looks.
“We had the same worldview and beliefs,” Allegretti said. “Working here, he was able to merge his passions and his career.”
The pair would attend rallies together, such as the Women’s March and a pro-environment march last year in Wilmington. Sometimes, Allegretti said, they’d just run into each other.
“I’d be at a protest,” she said, “and I’d see him there too. We’d both say, ‘I didn’t know you’d be here.’”
Then, they’d laugh.
So when she heard the good news on Friday, Allegretti — and Jewell — helped him get ready.
“I have guilt,” Allegretti, 45, said. “I helped him book his itinerary.”
“You’ve been exhausting this year.”
That was one of the last texts Allegretti sent, jokingly, to Vecere. Her friend’s last-minute trip to Kenya had consumed her Friday.
She and Jewell printed up business cards, helped Vecere figure out what he’d say to the U.N., checked his visa status — and urged him to actually buy business attire.
Allegretti booked him on a 10:45 p.m. Alaska Airlines flight to Washington.
Vecere sent a group text to his two coworkers about an hour before takeoff, letting them know he’d boarded.
They chatted a bit, joshing with each other: Allegretti told Vecere IQ Air only hired him because he’s cute. Jewell called Vecere the lead singer of their three-person band — and himself the in-the-background drummer; Vecere denounced the self-deprecation, calling Jewell a “front man.”
Then, Jewell told Vecere he was proud of him. Allegretti texted that, his “mother would be proud of you.”
He replied with the shrugging emoji.
That was the last they heard of him.
“He was supposed to text us late Saturday,” Allegretti said. “But he never did.”
Allegretti woke Sunday morning not to a text from Vecere — but to a news alert. A plane had gone down in Ethiopia. She checked how many flights where scheduled from Addis Ababa to Nairobi. Only one, she discovered.
“It hit like a ton of bricks,” she said. “I was in denial.
“I didn’t know him for that long,” Allegretti added. “But he became like my family.”
She called her boss, and then texted Jewell and some of the other 50 or so IQ Air employees. She spent Sunday crying in bed, her dog — a boxer — licking the tears from her face.
Then came Monday. She pulled into the IQ Air parking lot and, instinctively, looked for Vecere’s car.
It wasn’t there. It wouldn’t be again. And neither would Vecere.
The world, she said, had lost a good man.
Staff writer Teri Sforza contributed to this report.