At least three people have died and more than two dozen people were rescued from the water off the coast of Point Loma Sunday after a packed boat being used in a suspected human smuggling operation capsized and broke apart in powerful surf, according to authorities.
Dozens of rescue crews responded to Catalina Boulevard, near the Cabrillo National Monument in San Diego, at about 10:30 a.m. following reports of an overturned boat in the waves near the rugged peninsula, the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department said.
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, adding that the boat, described as a 40-foot cabin cruiser, "had basically broken apart."
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“Our goal was just to rescue everyone we can from the water and on the beach and get them out safely and get them transported to the hospital as quickly as we can," Romero said.
On Monday, after calling off a search for more potential victims, the U.S. Coast Guard updated its count to show 32 people had been accounted for, with 29 people found alive and three declared dead either at the scene or local hospitals. One person remained in critical condition.
The boat did not have a manifest so it was not at first clear everyone on board was accounted for, investigators said.
"“After careful consideration using the information from our on-scene crews, partner agency input and the magnitude of the response efforts, the Coast Guard suspended our search on Monday morning,” said Captain Timothy Barelli, the Sector San Diego commander."
The search was called off at about 7:15 a.m. Monday.
Earlier Sunday, the SDFD said the injured were taken to area hospitals for treatment, including Sharp Memorial, Palomar Medical Center West, Alvarado, UCSD Medical Center, Grossmont Hospital, Kaiser Clairemont Mesa, Kaiser Zion and Paradise Valley Hospital.
Warning: The video below may contain graphic imagery
The people transferred to the hospitals suffered a wide range of injuries, Romero said.
Officials reported two women and one man had died but did not release their names as their families have not yet been notified. The gender of the fourth person has not yet been released.
Witness Nick Vonesch said he saw dozens of ambulances and fire trucks heading towards the scene and called it the "biggest search and rescue thing I’ve ever seen. It is a little scary."
Jeff Stephenson, a supervising agent with U.S. Border Patrol, said every indication suggests this was a smuggling vessel used to traffic migrants into the U.S. illegally.
Stephenson described the boat as being “severely overcrowded" and said USBP was not aware of the boat before the incident and believes the vessel may have blended in with other commercial boats as it did not present any red flags.
"The man who we believe was the operator, agents are with him, and is the suspected smuggler, but the investigation is still unfolding,” Stephenson said. Smugglers typically face federal charges and those being smuggled are usually deported.
Days earlier, USBP Chief Agent Aaron M. Heitke said the agency had recently seen an increase in the number of illegal crossings at sea and would be ramping up coastal patrols this weekend as a result.
“We were putting more resources out in the water to interdict vessels like this and we announced it in advance to try to deter as much as we could to try and send a message to smugglers," Stephenson said.
Neither a description of the victims nor their nationalities has been released. The San Diego Mexican Consulate is currently in contact with officials involved in the investigation in case the victims are Mexican nationals.
According to Cesar Luna, an immigration attorney, if those who arrived are undocumented immigrants, because they were apprehended at sea, under the law, they are deemed as arriving at the country which means they could be subject to expedited removal process. It is also likely those who applied for asylum before Sunday's incident will be allowed to remain in the U.S.
Michael Kramer, a boater who was biking in the Cabrillo area at the time, said inexperienced boaters often have difficulty navigating around Point Loma.
"This is a really tricky area sailing out of the San Diego Harbor and coming around the point here," Kramer said. "There’s a lot of rogue waves and what not and there's a shoal further on out. You really have to sail out about a mile to two miles before you hang a right and start going up the coast and people get into trouble all the time because they take it too close."
State Assemblyman Chris Ward witnessed the boat crash when he and his family were out at the tidepools. Ward tweeted he was "shaken" by the horrible tragedy and that it was traumatic to witness the violent capsizing and people pouring out into the ocean.
He thanked all the agencies who worked to rescue the passengers on the vessel. Ward also tweeted he is furious about the circumstances that forced these individuals to put themselves into harm’s way.
The U.S. Coast Guard, San Diego Harbor Police, San Diego Fire-Rescue and SDFD Lifeguards, San Diego Fire Department, Border Patrol, Air and Marine Operations, Office of Field Operations, Homeland Security Investigations and National Park Service assisted in the rescue.
It was not immediately clear what caused the incident. Investigators have not yet said where the boat was coming from or where it was headed.
The Coast Guard continued searching for survivors through the night.