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Suspected smuggling boat capsizes off San Diego killing at least 3 of the 30+ on board

KFMB San Diego logo KFMB San Diego 5/2/2021 CBS News 8 Team
a person flying through the air while riding a wave in the ocean © Provided by KFMB San Diego

At least 3 people died and 29 others were injured Sunday after a suspected smuggling boat overturned off Point Loma near Cabrillo National Monument, according to the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department and Customs and Border Patrol officials. SDFRD described the boat as a 40-foot cabin cruiser. 

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Emergency crews from multiple San Diego agencies responded to the scene near 200 Catalina Blvd. which was first reported around just before 10 a.m., according to SDFRD.

San Diego Lifeguard officials said the initial call came in as a report of a vessel adrift with one person on board. As lifeguards arrived on scene the boat had crashed into the shoreline, broken apart and 30+ people were in the water.

As of Monday, five people remained in the hospital according to Customs and Border Patrol. 

Of the 28 people taken into custody, one was identified as an unaccompanied 15-year-old boy, according to CBP.  The others were ages 18-39 and included 21 men and 6 women. 

The Coast Guard continued to search for additional survivors through the night and confirmed that 32 people had been accounted for.  They announced that they had suspended the search operation on Monday around 11 a.m.

“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. “Yesterday, we were once again reminded how dangerous these ocean smuggling attempts can be and we will continue to work with our local, state and federal partners to prevent, detect and respond to cases like this to keep the waters of San Diego safe and secure.” 

San Diego Lifeguard Lt. Rick Romero described conditions during the rescues as rough with five to six feet of surf, wind gusts and water temperatures around 60 degrees.

"Our goal was just to rescue everyone we can from the water and along the beach and get them safely transported to the hospital as quickly as we can," said Romero.

Jeffery Stephenson of the Customs and Border Protection Public Affairs Office said the agency had every indication that the boat was a smuggling vessel being used to bring people into the United States illegally. 

He described the boat as "severely overcrowded."

"[Smugglers] don't care about the people they're exploiting," Stephenson said. 

According to San Diego Lifeguard officials, lifeguards pulled seven of the 30 people from the water and performed one cliffside rescue while the other surviving occupants from the boat swam to shore on their own. At least three did not survive and died on scene. It is believed that an additional person died later at a local hospital but that has not been confirmed.

The survivors were taken to hospitals throughout San Diego, including Sharp Memorial, Palomar Medical Center West, Alvarado, UCSD Medical Center in Hillcrest, Grossmont Hospital, Kaiser Clairemont Mesa, Kaiser Zion and Paradise Valley Hospital, the SDFRD said.

"This was a mass rescue operation that turned into a mass casualty event," Gartland said. There was one major trauma and three people were treated with CPR, San Diego Lifeguard Chief James Gartland said.

The suspected smuggler was among those transported and was being questioned by Border Patrol officers, Stephenson said. 

Lifeguard officials said there was a wide range of injuries and ailments being treated including hypothermia. 

"It's a tragedy," said Gartland. "It's a tragic event here in San Diego. Probably one of the bigger vessel accidents, bigger calls that we've seen here certainly in my 26 years and certainly in Lt. Romero's 28 years - this is probably the worst tragedy." 

As of Sunday afternoon, U.S. Coast Guard personnel continued to search the water off Point Loma for additional victims.

SDFRD firefighters and lifeguards, along with federal firefighters, U.S. Coast Guard and other local agencies worked together on the accident.

About 96 personnel were assigned to the rescue, including medics, fire engine crews and a chaplain. 

The Mexican Consulate also released a statement via Twitter saying they are aware of this incident and are prepared to assist any possible victims. 

Editor's note: The original story stated that 4 people had died from the incident, 3 on scene and another at a local hospital. The story was updated to state 'at least 3' have died while we confirm that there has been a 4th victim from those taken to the local hospitals.

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