Debris is littered along the shoreline off Cabrillo Monument in San Diego, California, on Sunday. AFP
Lifeguards, the US Coast Guard and other agencies responded around 10:30am following reports of an overturned vessel in the waves near the rugged peninsula of Point Loma, according to the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department.
The original call was for a handful of people overboard but as rescuers arrived in boats and jet skis they quickly realized "it was going to be a bigger situation with more people,” said San Diego Lifeguard Services Lt. Rick Romero.
"There are people in the water, drowning, getting sucked out the rip current there,” he said.
Seven people were pulled from the waves, including three who drowned, said Romero. One person was rescued from a cliff and 22 others managed to make it to shore on their own, he said.
"Once we arrived on scene, the boat had basically been broken apart,” Romero said. "Conditions were pretty rough: 5 to 6 feet of surf, windy, cold.”
A total of 27 people were transported to hospitals with "a wide variety of injuries” including hypothermia, Romero said. Most of the victims were able to walk themselves to ambulances, he said.
Officials said the group was overcrowded on a 40-foot (12-meter) 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.
Debris is littered along the shoreline off Cabrillo Monument on Sunday in San Diego, California. AFP
"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.
Under a pandemic-related order in effect since March 2020, migrants from Mexico and people from Central American countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras picked up at the border are immediately expelled to Mexico without an opportunity to seek asylum. President Joe Biden has exempted unaccompanied children from expulsions but the vast majority of adults are quickly sent back without facing any consequences.
Border Patrol agents went to hospitals to interview survivors of the capsizing, including the boat’s captain who Stephenson described as a "suspected smuggler.” Smugglers typically face federal charges and those being smuggled are usually deported.
Police and the suspect exchanged fire, according to the Los Angeles Times. "The situation has been stabilized and there is no threat to the public," the Orange Police Department said in a post to their Facebook page.
The United States Coastguard and a fleet of volunteers were deployed to search for the 18 crew on board after the vessel capsized in a storm near Port Fourchon, about 160 kilometres (100 miles) south of New Orleans.
Others were taken to Community Regional Medical Center in critical condition, and some are in critical but stable condition, the TV stations reported.
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