SAN DIEGO (AP) — A packed boat being used in a suspected human smuggling operation capsized on Sunday and broke apart in powerful surf along the rocky San Diego coast, killing three people and injuring more than two dozen others, authorities said.
Lifeguards, the United States (US) Coast Guard and other agencies responded around 10.30am following reports of an overturned vessel in the waves near the rugged 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 realised “it was going to be a bigger situation with more people”, said San Diego Lifeguard Services Liutenant Rick Romero.
“There are people in the water, drowning, getting sucked out the rip current there,” he said.
Seven people were pulled from the waves, including three who drowned, said Romero. One person was rescued from a cliff and 22 others managed to make it to shore on their own, he said.
“Once we arrived on scene, the boat had basically been broken apart,” Romero said. “Conditions were pretty rough: five to six feet of surf, windy, cold.”
A total of 27 people were transported to hospitals with “a wide variety of injuries” including hypothermia, Romero said. Most of the victims were able to walk themselves to ambulances, he said.
Officials said the group was overcrowded on a 40-foot cabin cruiser that is larger than the typical open-top wooden panga-style boats often used by smugglers to bring people illegally into the US from Mexico.
“Every indication from our perspective was this was a smuggling vessel. We haven’t confirmed their nationality,” said supervising agent with US Border Patrol Jeff Stephenson.
Under a pandemic-related order in effect since March 2020, migrants from Mexico and people from Central American countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras picked up at the border are immediately expelled to Mexico without an opportunity to seek asylum. US President Joe Biden has exempted unaccompanied children from expulsions but the vast majority of adults are quickly sent back without facing any consequences.
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.