3 Die After Human-Smuggling Boat Hits Reef Near San Diego

By Neil Vigdor and Marie Fazio

More than two dozen others were rescued and taken to hospitals after the 40-foot craft splintered in rough seas, the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department said.

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Three people died and more than two dozen were hospitalized after a 40-foot boat being used to smuggle migrants broke apart on a reef off the coast of San Diego Sunday morning, the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department said.CreditCredit...Denis Poroy/Associated Press

Three people died and more than two dozen others were hospitalized after an overcrowded boat being used to smuggle migrants broke apart on a reef off the coast of San Diego on Sunday morning, the authorities said.

About 30 people were aboard the 40-foot cabin cruiser when it hit the rocks in rough weather near Point Loma, a peninsula that separates the Pacific Ocean and San Diego Bay, according to the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department.

One person was still in critical condition as of Monday afternoon, the United States Coast Guard said in a statement.

The shipwreck drew a large-scale search and rescue operation by sea, land and air, with emergency responders racing to save the boat’s passengers from being sucked into a riptide and from hypothermia.

The surf was about five to six feet, with water temperatures around 60 degrees at the time that the boat started to drift toward the reef at about 10 a.m., officials said. The authorities suspended the search for additional passengers on Monday morning.

ImageWreckage and debris from a boat overcrowded with migrants washed ashore at Cabrillo National Monument just off the San Diego coast.
Wreckage and debris from a boat overcrowded with migrants washed ashore at Cabrillo National Monument just off the San Diego coast.Credit...Denis Poroy/Associated Press

The episode provided another reminder of the perils of crossing the border by sea, a treacherous journey that migrants have undertaken with greater frequency during the past year, the authorities said.

“The smugglers don’t really care about the people they’re exploiting,” Jeff Stephenson, a Border Patrol supervisory agent in the San Diego sector, said during a news conference on Sunday afternoon. “All they care about is profit. To them, these people are just commodities.”

Information on the nationalities, ages and genders of the boat’s passengers was not immediately available from the authorities, who said that there was no manifest for the vessel.

The boat’s captain was taken into custody, according to Border Patrol officials, who said that the captain was a “bit out of it” and spoke to agents at the scene.

Rick Romero, a lifeguard lieutenant with the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department, said at the news conference that six people were rescued from the water and one person from the cliffs of Point Loma.

He said that rescuers performed CPR on three people who died, and that many of the passengers were able to swim or walk to shore on their own. Officials described the injuries to the 27 other passengers as wide-ranging and said some had hypothermia.

“The boat was on the reef bouncing back and forth and then just slowly disintegrated into a bunch of pieces,” Lieutenant Romero said. “So there’s no boat there. It’s all debris.”

Some of the passengers had personal flotation devices, the authorities said, though it was not immediately clear whether there were enough for all of the passengers and whether they were wearing them.

Emergency responders said that a commercial assistance vessel first alerted them that a boat was drifting toward the surf line at about 10 a.m. near the Cabrillo National Monument, at the peninsula’s southern tip. The initial report indicated that there was only one person on the boat, they said.

“The ocean is inherently unsafe,” Agent Stephenson said. “The reality is, crossing the border illegally is unsafe no matter the method, especially at sea, with water temperatures being what they are, and, as the lifeguards described, high surf. It’s a very dangerous scenario.”

Since late 2009, the authorities in Southern California have caught more than 6,500 people entering American territory by water; about one-fifth of those were apprehended last year.

Even without the perils of high-speed, lowlight interdiction, California’s big surf and cool waters claim lives. Passengers have drowned after leaping from small craft for short swims to shore, including a man whose body washed up in La Jolla in 2017.

On occasion small wooden “panga” type vessels swamp or roll over, pitching people into waves or rip currents, as happened in August when two migrants died at Ocean Beach.

San Diego firefighters and lifeguards and federal agencies, including U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the U.S. Coast Guard, assisted in the rescue effort on Sunday.

The accident took place just three days after the Border Patrol said that it had interdicted a panga 11 miles off the coast of Point Loma with 21 people on board.

All 21 of that boat’s passengers — 15 men and six women — were Mexican nationals, according to the authorities, who said that two smugglers from the vessel would face federal charges.

Border Patrol officials said that although they increased their enforcement over the weekend and made efforts to publicize the operation, the boat’s captain and passengers were undeterred from making the journey on Sunday.

Agent Stephenson said there was a 92 percent increase in apprehensions in the maritime domain in the 2020 fiscal year ending Sept. 30 compared with the 2019 fiscal year, as an increasing number of migrants try to enter the United States by sea. Many of the boats begin the voyage from beach areas along the Baja Peninsula like Rosarito, Mexico, which is about 40 miles from Point Loma, he said.

“These last couple of years we’ve seen a dramatic increase,” he said.

C. J. Chivers and Daniel Victor contributed reporting.