Suspected Human Smuggling Operation Left 4 Dead after Boat Capsizes off San Diego Coast

Four people died, and more than two dozen others were brought to the hospital after a wooden boat capsized just off the San Diego coast near Point Loma on Sunday on what appeared to be a human smuggling operation.

Monica Munoz, the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department spokesperson, said that they received a report that a vessel had overturned near the Cabrillo National Monument in Point Loma around 10:27 A.M. The lifeguard chief for San Diego, James Gartland, told reporters that it is likely that the boat had hit the reef, was destroyed, and 30 people came scrambling out.

“This was a mass rescue operation that turned into a mass casualty incident,” said Gartland.

When the first responders arrived, the 40-foot cabin cruiser boat was broken apart, according to Lifeguard Lt. Rick Romero with San Diego Fire-Rescue. They have counted a total of 30 people from the boat, including the four who had died. Most of them swam to shore on their own, but six people were rescued from the water after being pulled out by rip current out to sea.

“Our goal was just to rescue everyone we could. Conditions were pretty rough — 5-6 feet of surf, windy, cold, the water’s around 60 degrees, so you get hypothermic pretty quickly,” Romero said. Adding that, a Navy staff member on the beach with his family also swam out and helped save people in the water.

“Every indication, from our perspective, is that this was a smuggling vessel used to smuggle migrants into the United States illegally,” said Jeff Stephenson, who is a supervisor and border patrol agent for US Customs and Border Patrol. The person believed to be the smuggler is already in custody. Stephenson told reporters that compared to the previous year, the maritime apprehensions of smugglers increased by 92% in the fiscal year ending last September.

The fire department confirmed that more than 20 people were immediately transported to nearby hospitals, including Palomar Medical Center West, Kaiser Clairemont Mesa, Sharp Memorial, UCSD Medical Center (Hillcrest), Grossmont Kaiser Zion, and Paradise Valley Hospital.