Local lifeguards, the U.S. Coast Guard and other agencies responded around 6 p.m. 10.30am after reports of a capsized ship near the Point Loma Peninsula, according to the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department.
The original call was for a handful of people overboard, but when rescuers arrived in boats and jet skis, they quickly realized “it would be a bigger situation with more people,” said San Diego Lifeguard Services lieutenant Rick Romero.
“There are people in the water drowning and being sucked out of the rip stream there,”
When officials arrived at the site near the Cabrillo National Monument, there was a “large dirt field” with broken wood and other objects in the troubled water. The ship’s wreck slowly disintegrated in the sea after hitting a reef.
Seven people were found in the water, including three who had drowned, Romero said. One person was rescued from a cliff and the others managed to land on their own, he said.
Officials initially said 30 people were found, but the Coast Guard later said a total of 29 people were taken into account, including one person in critical condition and the four dead.
The Coast Guard said crews were still searching for more as there was no official record of how many people were actually on the boat.
Twenty-five people were transported to hospitals with “a wide range of injuries” including hypothermia, Romero said. Most of the victims were able to go to ambulances themselves, he said.
Officials said the ship is larger than the typical open panga-style wooden boats often used by smugglers to bring people illegally to the United States from Mexico.
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“Any indication from our perspective was that this was a smuggler’s vessel. We have not confirmed their nationality,” said Jeff Stephenson, a U.S. Border Patrol supervisory agent.
A man believed to be the operator of the 40-foot ship was taken into custody as a “suspected smuggler.”
It is not clear where the boat was heading, and no word on what caused the boat to capsize.
This happened in federal water jurisdiction, so federal officials will handle the investigation. San Diego assists federal authorities.
On Thursday, officials demarcated a panga-type vessel that traveled without navigation lights 18 miles off the coast of Point Loma with 21 people on board. The crew took all 15 men and six women into custody. Agents determined that all were Mexican citizens without legal status to enter the United States, according to a statement released by Customs and Border Protection. Two of the people on the boat, the suspected smugglers, will be charged, it said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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