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Suspected smuggling boat capsizes off San Diego, leaving at least three dead

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At least three people were killed and more than 20 others hospitalized when a human-smuggling boat capsized off the San Diego coast on Sunday, authorities said.

Dozens of people jumped from the overcrowded vessel when it hit a reef near the Point Loma peninsula and broke apart, San Diego lifeguard Lt. Rick Romero said at a press briefing.

“There were people in the water drowning, getting sucked out the rip current there, and there were people on shore,” Romero said. 

Seven people were pulled from the rough waters. One person was rescued from a cliff and 22 others managed to make it to shore on their own.

Three people died at the scene and 27 others were taken to local hospitals with “a wide variety of injuries” including hypothermia, Romero said.

“Once we arrived on scene, the boat had basically been broken apart,” Romero said. “Conditions were pretty rough: 5 to 6 feet of surf, windy, cold.”

Two people are dead and multiple people injured after a vessel overturned in the waters off Point Loma Sunday morning
A total of 92 personnel have been assigned to the scene.
KGTV

A Customs and Border Protection agent told reporters that the boat, described as a 40-foot cabin cruiser, had been attempting to smuggle migrants illegally into the country.

“Every indication from our perspective was this was a smuggling vessel,” said Jeff Stephenson, a supervising agent with the agency.

The vessel’s captain — the suspected smuggler — was in custody and speaking to CBP agents, Stephenson said.

Two people are dead and multiple people injured after a vessel overturned in the waters off Point Loma Sunday morning
According to San Diego Fire-Rescue, two people were killed in the crash and 23 people were taken to the hospital.
KGTV

It’s unclear from where the migrants were coming.

Photos and videos from the scene showed debris, including planks of wood, floating in the waters near the Cabrillo National Monument.

“It is very rocky over there, and the waves, while they weren’t too high, they looked pretty strong,” said Jose Ysea, a spokesman with the the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department.  

“It’s likely the waves just kept pounding the boat, breaking it apart,” he added.

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There were life-vests aboard the vessel but it wasn’t known how many or whether any of the passengers were wearing them, officials said.

A Navy sailor who was in the area with his family when the boat capsized jumped in the waters to help with the rescue, and his heroic actions were “a huge help,” Romero said.

While there was no manifest on board, officials believe everyone who was in the boat was accounted for.

Two people are dead and multiple people injured after a vessel overturned in the waters off Point Loma Sunday morning
The victims were taken to local hospitals.
KGTV

But boats and aircraft from local and federal agencies continued to search for possible survivors for several hours after the wreck.

Close to 100 first responders — including medics, engine crews and a chaplain — were assigned by fire officials to work on the large “debris field” of broken wood and other items at the scene, authorities said.

Small vessels, usually low-slung pangas, are known to be used by smugglers to bring people illegally into California from Mexico. 

Border Patrol agents often spot the boats — which are usually overcrowded, unsafe and not well equipped — off the San Diego coast.

On Thursday, one of the small wooden vessels was intercepted about 11 miles off Point Loma, with 21 people crowded inside

Agents took all 15 men and six women into custody and determined that they were Mexican citizens with no legal status to enter the US. Two of the people on the boat, the suspected smugglers, will face charges, the CBP said.

The agency on Friday said it would be ramping up operations to stop smuggling off the coast over the weekend and warned about the dangers of trying to illegally cross into the US at sea.

“We’ve seen a dramatic increase in the number of maritime smuggling attempts recently,” said Chief Patrol Agent Aaron Heitke, of CBP’s San Diego sector.

“All of these illegal crossings at sea are inherently dangerous, and we have seen too many turn from risky to tragic as smugglers sacrifice the safety of those on board for the sake of profits.”

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