Three people have been killed and 27 are in hospital after a wooden boat capsized during a possible human smuggling operation just off the US San Diego coast.
ocal lifeguards, the US Coast Guard and other agencies responded following reports of an overturned vessel near the peninsula of Point Loma, according to the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department.
Three people died at the scene and 27 people were taken to hospital with “varying degrees of injuries,” department spokesman Jose Ysea said.
In that area of Point Loma it’s very rocky. It’s likely the waves just kept pounding the boat, breaking it apart
Mr Ysea said when he arrived at the scene near the Cabrillo National Monument there was a “large debris field” of broken wood and other items in the choppy waters.
“In that area of Point Loma it’s very rocky. It’s likely the waves just kept pounding the boat, breaking it apart,” Mr Ysea said.
Lieutenant Rick Romero, from San Diego Lifeguard Services, said seven people were pulled from the waves, including three who drowned.
One person was rescued from a cliff and 22 others managed to make it to shore on their own, he added.
Mr Romero said: “Conditions were pretty rough: five to six feet of surf, windy, cold.”
Officials said the group was overcrowded on a 40-foot (12-metre) cabin cruiser that is larger than the typical open-top wooden panga-style boats often used by smugglers to bring people illegally into the US from Mexico.
“Every indication from our perspective was this was a smuggling vessel. We haven’t confirmed their nationality,” said Jeff Stephenson, a supervising agent with US Border Patrol.
Agents were at hospitals preparing to interview survivors, including the boat’s captain who Mr Stephenson described as a “suspected smuggler”. Smugglers typically face federal charges and those being smuggled are usually deported.
Officials said smugglers sometimes use larger, more conventional boats to try and blend in with regular maritime traffic.
Border Patrol often spots pangas off the San Diego coast, many of them crowded with about 20 passengers. Some boats have landed hundreds of miles north of the border. Deaths are unusual but not unprecedented.
On Thursday, border officials intercepted a panga-type vessel travelling without navigation lights 11 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 all were Mexican citizens with no legal status to enter the US, according to a statement released by Customs and Border Protection. Two of the people on the boat, the suspected smugglers, will face federal charges.
Border Patrol said law enforcement officials would be ramping up operations to disrupt maritime smuggling off the coast of San Diego.