At least eight people were dead after two migrant smuggling boats capsized off a San Diego beach in a suspected human-smuggling operation, authorities said.
“This is one of the worst maritime smuggling tragedies that I can think of in California, certainly here in the city of San Diego,” said James Gartland, chief of the lifeguard division in San Diego.
Gartland said a woman called 911 at about 11:30 p.m. Saturday, saying she was on a panga boat with 15 people aboard that made it to the shore at Black’s Beach. Speaking in Spanish, the caller said another panga – relatively small fishing boats with outboard motors often used for smuggling operations – had capsized, and eight people were in the water.
Recovery efforts resumed on Sunday after heavy fog hampered the search but no additional bodies were found, according to Coast Guard and San Diego Fire-Rescue crews.
Authorities said survivors may have escaped on land, including the woman who called 911 whose whereabouts are unknown.
At least some of Saturday’s victims were Mexican, according to the country’s consulate in San Diego, but how many is not known.
Police and fire departments, the Coast Guard and Customs Border Protection aided the search and rescue effort.
A lifeguard dispatcher used GPS coordinates from the caller’s cellphone to locate the wreckage.
The San Diego Fire Department said it attempted to send two helicopters to help search for victims, but conditions were too foggy and misty.
Bodies and debris found scattered across beach
San Diego Fire-Rescue spokesperson Mónica Muñoz said the lifeguard teams, unable to immediately access the beach because of high tide, waded through water up to waist deep before reaching two overturned pangas. Bodies and debris were scattered over 400 yards of beach and surf, Muñoz said.
The first lifeguards on the scene found seven bodies, pulling victims from knee-deep water and from the waterline up the beach to dry sand. An eighth body was found a short time later by Customs and Border Protection’s Air and Marine Operations officers, Muñoz said. Several lifejackets and fuel barrels were also found.
The victims were all adults
Gartland said access to the area was difficult, and when his team reached the beach the caller and other survivors were gone. All the victims were adults, he said.
“When we arrived on scene, both vessels were capsized and inside the shoreline,” he said. “That area is a very hazardous area, even in the daytime.”
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A Coast Guard cutter was combing the area near Black’s Beach for other victims, and officials hoped to use helicopters when weather improves, Coast Guard Capt. James Spitler said.
‘These boats are overloaded’
Eric Lavergne, a Border Patrol spokesman, said hundreds of maritime smuggling incidents occur every year. Saturday’s accident was one of the deadliest ever in the U.S., he said.
In May 2021, a packed boat carrying migrants capsized and broke apart in powerful surf along the rocky San Diego coast, killing three people and injuring more than two dozen. The dangers involved for people attempting to reach the U.S on small boats are immense, Spitler said.
“Every time they get into a panga to come northbound their lives are at risk,” he said. “Often these boats are overloaded, the maintenance is poor, and they often do it in weather like last night’s weathwhere there is very little visibility, very challenging for anyone to operate in those conditions.”
Contributing: Jorge L. Ortiz, USA TODAY; The Associated Press