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Matt Vecere, a former employee of Heritage Surf and Sport in Sea Isle City, and a rider on the Heritage surf team, shown in action. (Courtesy Heritage Surf and Sport)

 By Tim Kelly

When news broke of a devastating earthquake hitting the island nation of Haiti in 2010, Sea Isle City native Matt Vecere’s reaction was decisive and immediate.

“I’m going to Haiti,” Vecere’s friends recalled him saying at that time.

“Matt didn’t know exactly what he was going to do to help. But he knew he was going down there, and he was going to make a difference,” said longtime friend and colleague Brian Heritage.

Vecere was among the 157 people who died on Sunday when Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed just minutes after takeoff.

The crash happened on the flight from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, bound for Nairobi, Kenya, where Vecere, 43, had planned to do more humanitarian aid work. There were no survivors.

“That was Matt,” said close friend Chad Harris, a former co-worker at Sea Isle’s Heritage Surf and Sport, which is owned by Brian Heritage.

Harris said he wasn’t the least bit surprised Vecere was on a mission of mercy when the airliner went down.

“He was one of the first volunteer workers to arrive on the scene in Haiti,” said Harris. “Matt was the type of person who would always think of others ahead of himself.”

It didn’t have to be a magnitude 7.0 earthquake or a mission to Kenya for Vecere. He did the little things to help people, too, Heritage said.

“If he was giving a surf lesson and the person wasn’t comfortable at the end of it, Matt would use a half hour or an hour of his own time to keep working with them until they had it down,” Heritage said.

Matt Vecere, known for his humanitarian efforts, was a graduate of Ocean City High School and Stockton University. (Courtesy IQAir)

Vecere left New Jersey for California in 2005, according to friends, and was a content provider for the Los Angeles-based company IQAir at the time of his death.

“He was a very talented and creative writer,” said a friend who worked with Vecere on several local surf publications.

“It’s sad and it’s shocking,” added the friend, who asked that his name not be used. “He was friends with everybody. He was just a good dude.”

Vecere was a graduate of Ocean City High School and Stockton University. Heritage called Vecere “a highly intellectual and thoughtful person.”

“If you were going to get into a political debate with Matt you better know your facts, because you could bet he was going to know the issue inside and out. By the time the discussion was over, the other person was usually convinced Matt’s side was the correct one,” Heritage said.

Heritage said political and social issues interested Vecere immensely, and following a conversation about such topics, “You couldn’t help but come away feeling enlightened and aware of alternative viewpoints.”

“I think he knew so much about these issues that he sometimes took the side he didn’t personally agree with, just to make the person see the other viewpoint,” Heritage said.

Vecere’s family owned a successful Sea Isle City restaurant, Steak Out, which has since changed hands. Vecere worked there before heading to California, according to friends.

“He was a very good surfer,” Heritage said. “If you’re a young and talented surfer, you’re going to want to be in California. I knew he would have no trouble working in our industry wherever he went. He literally had friends all over the world in our industry.”

Heritage also noted that Vecere was “quietly competitive. There were two sides to him. He wanted to help people, but he also had a burning desire to be the best at anything he tried to do.”

Heritage said Vecere was “looking for his niche” when he moved west, “trying to find ways to (earn a living) and to live the (surfing) lifestyle out there.”

He had apparently done just that in his job with IQAir, an air quality company.

“Matt was an amazing writer, an avid surfer and a truly selfless person,” the company said in a statement. “We will miss his laugh, his wit, his sense of humor, but most of all the kinship and friendship he brought to everything he did.”

Although it’s still too early for specifics, Heritage said local friends and others will “no doubt” organize a memorial paddle this summer to remember Matt.

“He was a guy who had a higher purpose,” Heritage said. “His is a life to be recognized and celebrated.”