Three people remained missing and 15 people were rescued off a fishing boat that caught fire about 28 miles south of Point Loma on Saturday night, including two who were badly burned, officials said.
The survivors were rescued by crews from a nearby fishing boat, including the two burn victims.
Three other people are still missing, the survivors told rescuers.
Mike Koesterer was on a family fishing trip aboard his boat, the Time Machine, when he saw “an orange flash” through his binoculars.
After he spotted smoke, he immediately called the Coast Guard around 9:35 p.m.
At first, Koesterer thought it may be a training exercise, but the Coast Guard assured it wasn't.
That’s when he sped his boat as fast as it could go, roughly 28 miles per hour, to the burning ship.
“We set our motors in neutral, so we could hear. We were close to the burning vessel, and then we began to hear people start screaming,” Koesterer said.
They arrived about 25 minutes after the boat caught fire, he told NBC 7.
In the darkness, it was hard to spot the overboard passengers, Koesterer said. “Even with a spotlight, we couldn’t see them a hundred feet away. We could just hear them.”
The smoke from the burning boat and the night skies left little visibility for rescue efforts, said U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Adam Scalesse.
Koesterer quickly told his son, Reeve, to jump in and start bringing people to the boat.
“He’s a water man. He’s been in the water since he was 5. Started him young, it’s where he lives,” he said about his 19-year-old son. “That’s his passion – to be in the water. When we got there, he didn’t hesitate – he went right in at night.”
Reeve pulled four people up onto the boat. They were close together, according to Reeve.
The remaining people were more than 100 feet apart and had to be driven to separately and pulled up with life rings, Reeve said.
Those aboard the Time Machine could see the severity of the injuries right away.
“Their hair was burned off. Their top layers of skin were burned off,” Koesterer told NBC 7. “It was hard to deal with that and very painful for them.”
Koesterer called the teamwork between is family and the Coast Guard “unbelievable… perfect.”
The Coast Guard responded with a 45-foot Response Boat and a helicopter while Mexico's Secretaría de Marina (SEMAR) also responded with two defender boats to assist.
“It’s not always that we coordinate with so many different agencies. A lot of times around here, it’s nice that we have so many people around for a Good Samaritan type of rescue,” Scalesse said.
The Coast Guard's helicopter airlifted the burn victims to UCSD Medical Center, Hillcrest. The victims suffered burns to most of their body and are in critical condition, officials said.
The 13 survivors were transferred from the Time Machine to a SEMAR boat and taken to Ensenada, Mexico, according to the Coast Guards
SEMAR has resumed the search for three missing people with the Coast Guard's assistance.