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At least three dead, dozens hurt when suspected smuggling boat crashes, breaks apart off Point Loma

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Three people were killed and more than two dozen others were hospitalized Sunday after a boat crashed into a reef and broke apart in rough water just off the San Diego coast during a suspected human smuggling operation, authorities said.

At least three people were killed and 27 others injured Sunday when an overloaded boat crashed into a reef and broke apart in rough waters off Point Loma in what authorities said was a human smuggling attempt.

“Every indication from our perspective is that this was a smuggling vessel used to smuggle migrants into the United States illegally,” Supervisory Border Patrol Agent Jeffery Stephenson said.

Lifeguard Chief James Gartland said the maritime crash was probably “one of the bigger vessel accidents” the region has seen.

“It’s a tragedy,” he said.

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San Diego lifeguards initially got a report of a boat that appeared to be in trouble about 10 a.m. They were told the boat was drifting toward the shoreline, with one person on board, officials said.

It turned out the 40-foot cabin cruiser was packed with 30 people. A breakdown of their ages, genders and nationalities was not immediately available.

By the time lifeguards arrived at the rocky peninsula, the boat had crashed and broken apart near the Cabrillo National Monument, officials said. Some people were injured onshore, while others were caught in a rip current.

“Conditions were pretty rough — 5 to 6 feet of surf, windy, cold, the water is around 60 degrees,” San Diego lifeguard Lt. Rick Romero said.

Items from a boat sit on the shoreline near where the vessel capsized just off the San Diego coast.
Items from a boat sit on the shoreline at Cabrillo National Monument near where it capsized just off the San Diego coast on Sunday. At least three people died, and more than two dozen were hospitalized, fire officials said.
(Denis Poroy / Associated Press)

Lifeguards on rescue boats and personal watercraft pulled seven people from the water, including at least two of whom drowned, Romero said. Lifeguards also rescued one person from a cliff.

Among the rescuers who jumped into action was a good Samaritan: a Navy sailor who was in the area with his family, Romero said. The sailor jumped in the water and swam out to someone in what Romero described as “a huge help.”

The number of people who survived was unclear. Although fire officials said Sunday afternoon that three people died and 27 others were taken to hospitals, the Coast Guard said late Sunday that 29 people were accounted for after the boat crash — four who died and 25 who survived. The agency said one of the 25 was in critical condition in the hospital.

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Among the group of survivors was the suspected operator and smuggler, officials said.

A Coast Guard helicopter crew continued to search for other possible victims into the late afternoon.

Video from OnScene.TV showed medics performing CPR on two men on a Harbor Police Department dock, while a Coast Guard helicopter crew lowered a man in a basket onto a field. Medics whisked some people away on gurneys, while others walked.

Romero said there were life preservers on board, but it was unclear whether any passengers were wearing them.

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Jose Ysea, a San Diego Fire-Rescue Department spokesman, said when he got to the scene he saw a large “debris field” in the water.

“It is very rocky over there, and the waves, while they weren’t too high, they looked pretty strong” — enough to slam a boat into the rocks, he said.

Stephenson called the smuggling attempt during Sunday’s conditions a “very dangerous scenario.”

“The reality is crossing the border illegally is unsafe no matter the method, especially at sea,” he said. “The smugglers really just don’t care about the people they’re exploiting. All they care about is lining their own pocket for profit.”

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The suspected smuggling attempt happened during a weekend in which the Border Patrol and partner agencies ramped up efforts to thwart maritime smuggling off the coast of San Diego. Stephenson said the cabin cruiser was not on their radar.

He said the boat was not a panga — a low-slung, open fishing boat commonly used by smugglers. He said the cruiser was probably trying to blend in with commercial traffic and other “legitimate” vessels at sea.

Human and drug smugglers increasingly turned to the Pacific Ocean as an alternate way to enter the United States after the Trump administration tightened border infrastructure on land in recent years.

“Smugglers look for [any] vulnerability they think there is,” Stephenson said. “They’re looking for any method they can to move what they view as a commodity.”

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In fiscal 2020, the Border Patrol recorded 309 maritime smuggling incidents. Agents detained about 1,200 people during smuggling attempts — a 92% increase compared with fiscal 2019, Stephenson said.

The agency on Thursday recorded the 157th maritime smuggling incident of fiscal 2021 when a Customs and Border Protection helicopter crew spotted a panga boat without lights about 11 miles off the Point Loma coast. Officials stopped the boat and detained 21 Mexican nationals: 15 men and six women. Among the group were two suspected smugglers, officials said.

In a statement on Sunday’s incident, the Mexican consul general’s office in San Diego said it was in touch with authorities to assist any victims of Mexican descent and their families.

Hernandez and Kucher write for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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