SAN DIEGO (NewsNation Now) —At least three people were killed and more than two dozen others were hospitalized after a wooden boat capsized Sunday during a possible human smuggling operation just off the San Diego coast, authorities said.
Local lifeguards, the U.S. Coast Guard and other agencies responded around 10:30 a.m. following reports of an overturned vessel near the peninsula of Point Loma, according to the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department.
The original call was for a handful of people overboard but as rescuers arrived in boats and jet skis they quickly realized “it was going to be a bigger situation with more people,” said San Diego Lifeguard Services Lt. Rick Romero.
“There are people in the water, drowning, getting sucked out the rip current there,” he said.
San Diego Fire-Rescue Department spokesman Jose Ysea said when he arrived on the scene near the Cabrillo National Monument there was a “large debris field” of broken wood and other items in the choppy waters.
“In that area of Point Loma it’s very rocky. It’s likely the waves just kept pounding the boat, breaking it apart,” Ysea said.
Video sent to NewsNation affiliate KSWB showed the boat bobbing in rough surf offshore. Waves batter the vessel, which is leaning heavily to one side, as people try to climb up and over a railing on the side of the boat. Scattered debris and loose life vests could be seen floating in the water around the boat. The video appears to show some people grab and put on life vests, while others tried to stay afloat by holding debris.
Ysea said it was possible, but not confirmed, that the group had been packed in a low-slung panga boat, a type of small motorized vessel often made of wood used by smugglers to bring people illegally into the U.S. from Mexico.
Officials believed everyone on board was accounted for, but crews in boats and aircraft continued to search the area for other possible survivors, Ysea said.
“Every indication from our perspective was this was a smuggling vessel. We haven’t confirmed their nationality,” said Jeff Stephenson, a supervising agent with U.S. Border Patrol.
Border Patrol agents went to hospitals to interview survivors of the capsizing, including the boat’s captain who Stephenson described as a “suspected smuggler.” Smugglers typically face federal charges and those being smuggled are usually deported.
Border Patrol often spots pangas off the San Diego coast, many of them crowded with about 20 passengers. Some boats have landed hundreds of miles north of the border. Deaths are unusual but not unprecedented.
On Thursday, border officials intercepted a panga-type vessel traveling without navigation lights 11 miles off the coast of Point Loma with 21 people on board. The crew took all 15 men and six women into custody. Agents determined all were Mexican citizens with no legal status to enter the U.S., according to a statement released by Customs and Border Protection. Two of the people on the boat, the suspected smugglers, will face federal charges, it said.
Border Patrol on Friday said law enforcement officials would be ramping up operations to disrupt maritime smuggling off the coast of San Diego this weekend.
As warmer weather comes to San Diego, there is a misperception that it will make illegal crossings safer or easier, the agency said in a statement.
San Diego City Councilmember Jen Campbell, who represents the district, including Point Loma, said she was “monitoring the incident.”
“While we wait for an official update, my thoughts are with those impacted and the many emergency personnel responding to the scene,” she wrote on Twitter.
The park service managing the Cabrillo monument wrote on Twitter that the tidepools and the road used to access them were closed until further notice. The park remains open.
The Associated press and NewsNation affilate KSWB contributed to this report.