COSTA MESA, Calif. - For Tony Altobelli, Sunday, January 26, 2020 started out much like any other morning. He had no idea that a frantic phone call that he received that day about a deadly helicopter crash would change his life and the lives of his family forever.
Tony Altobelli opened up to FOX 11’s Tony McEwing as he relieved memories at a Costa Mesa park where he and his older brother played baseball together as kids.
One of Tony Altobelli’s favorite memories of his brother was "having him coach me and teaching me everything he knows about baseball."
When he learned that John, John’s wife Keri, and their 14-year-old daughter Alyssa had been killed in the crash that also took the lives of Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and four others, his first reaction was to go to Orange Coast College where both he and his brother worked.
"I think that’s kind of how I handled the shock of the whole thing was just…I just told my brain it was my brother. I think I just told my brain it was the baseball coach at Orange Coast College and we had to take care of this because there were a hundred crying people at Orange Coast College. I wanted to be there for them," he explained of his selfless act.
"People grieve at their own pace and their own way. I’ve learned that throughout the course of this year for sure and there’s no wrong way. People 9 months later could be crying like it happened yesterday whereas in my situation, I talked about it so much and people have asked me about it and people have reached out to me and I’ve been able to drain the abscess every single day and there’s not a day that goes by that I haven’t talked about it," he said.
His niece Alyssa Altobelli, Gianna Bryant, and 13-year-old Payton Chester were teammates on a basketball team coached by Kobe Bryant. The teen athletes and their coach were among those onboard a Sikorsky S-76B helicopter that was bound for a basketball tournament in Thousand Oaks when tragedy struck on that foggy Sunday morning.
John Altobelli had won four state championships over a 27-year career as a baseball coach at the college and had raised millions of dollars for the program. But for Tony, John was his hero.
"Anything he did, I wanted to do. He played baseball, I played baseball. He liked 80s classic rock music, I liked 80s classic rock music. It didn’t matter," John Altobelli recalled.
Tony says there was so much to love about his big brother including his charming personality, his competitiveness, and his big heart. Now, Tony feels it is his responsibility to see to it that his brother and family are never forgotten.
"I always describe Keri as the leader of her family. John was the leader at Orange Coast College for his baseball team but when he got home, I think he knew who the leader was when it came down to the household," he said.
"She would do anything for her kids and for her family. I’ll always think of Alyssa as the cute little niece that had the great smile," he recalled of his sister-in-law and niece.
But the pandemic, which hit just a couple of months after the crash, has made it much more difficult to celebrate their lives in the way the family desires, and that, he says, has been difficult.
"That was the hardest part of this whole thing was we’re all in limbo. We’re trying to honor my brother, and Keri and Alyssa and do all the things that we’re supposed to do to that we want to do, and we’re not allowed to do them. You know like…we celebrated Easter on a Zoom meeting…we couldn’t be together as a family."
Tony Altobelli says the family is choosing not to dwell on the past but is instead celebrating the lives of the family members they lost.
"When somebody dies, you want to celebrate the life as soon as humanly possible. You can celebrate in 2021, in 2022- it could happen in 2052. And John left that kind of legacy to the point where nobody’s going to forget him.