At least eight people have died after two smuggling boats capsized near the shore of Black's Beach in San Diego County, California, officials said.
Authorities responded to the scene Saturday around 11:30 p.m. local time after someone on one of the panga boats, a type of small fishing boat powered by an outboard motor, called 911 to report victims in the water, according to the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department.
The 911 caller, a Spanish-speaking woman, reported two boats had overturned near the Torrey Pines City Beach access route to Black's Beach, said James Gartland, lifeguard chief for the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department, during a Sunday news conference.
Lifeguards, US Customs and Border Patrol and the US Coast Guard were dispatched to the beach where one boat, carrying eight people, made it to shore, while another panga boat, carrying 15, "overturned in the surf," said Capt. James Spitler, sector commander for the US Coast Guard in San Diego.
"We arrived in rescue mode. We did the best we could to recover people from the water, try and find survivors," Gartland said. "The lifeguards, after about an hour of searching and recovering bodies, we were in recovery mode for about five hours after that."
The first rescuers could not access the beach because of the high tide and had to wade through "knee to waist deep water," the fire department noted.
Both boats were capsized when rescuers and federal agents arrived at the scene, Gartland said. All eight of those killed were adults, according to Gartland, and their nationalities were not certain.
As rescuers entered the water, "they started to see the bodies of victims who had drowned, and they started pulling people in, and they also saw some folks washed up on shore," Gartland told CNN.
It's not clear which boat the victims came in or what caused the boats to capsize. Weather conditions were foggy, and it was pitch black with little visibility when they overturned, said Gartland. Some of the passengers died on the beach and others died in the water. By the time local and federal authorities arrived, any survivors had already left the scene, he added.
Authorities are still in search and recovery mode, Gartland said. San Diego lifeguards are in the area and are "searching for more victims," he added.
Human trafficking in region has spiked, chief says
The area where the boats capsized is hazardous due to a series of sandbars and inshore rip currents that can "pull you along the shore and then back out to sea," Gartland said.
Gartland told CNN none of the victims found at the scene were wearing a life jacket.
"It's a world-class surf break here in San Diego," Gartland said. "But with all the storms we've had over the winter, there's a lot of inshore holes and the rip currents pull very strong, so usually the passengers are wearing a life jacket."
The chief said the passengers might have landed on a sandbar before stepping in one of the inshore holes, adding, "... if you are not a strong ocean swimmer, certainly in the middle of the night with those temperatures, it's a very scary, harrowing and obviously deadly experience."
Spitler called the incident a "tragedy" and said human trafficking incidents in the Southern California coastal region have increased significantly since 2017. Since 2021, 23 people have died at sea in the region, the captain said.
"This is not necessarily people trying to find a better life," Spitler said, referring to the migrant boats. "This is part of a transnational criminal organization effort to smuggle people into the United States. These people are often labor trafficked, and sex trafficked when they arrive."
In May 2021, three people diedafter a boat hit a reef and broke apart near the Cabrillo National Monument in Point Loma, San Diego. Thirty-three people were pulled out of the water, including the bodies of the victims.
Gartland offered his condolences to the victims' families, saying, "This is the one of the worst maritime smuggling tragedies that I can think of in California. Certainly, here in the city of San Diego."
Lifeguards initially only spotted seven bodies, but then found another with assistance from the US Customs and Border Protection's Air and Marine Operations, the department said.
The bodies were transferred to the San Diego County Medical Examiner's office, fire department officials said.