Local rescuers, the U.S. Coast Guard and other agencies responded around 10:30 a.m. after reports of an overturned ship near the Point Loma Peninsula, the San Diego Fire and Rescue Service said.
The initial call was for a handful of people overboard, but as rescuers arrived in boats and jets, they quickly realized that “this will be a bigger situation with more people,” said San Diego Lt. Col. Rick Romero.
“There are people in the water who are drowning, sucking out the tearing current there,”
When officers arrived at the site near the Cabrillo National Monument, there was a “large field of debris” from broken wood and other objects in the exciting waters. The wreckage of the ship slowly disintegrated in the ocean after hitting a reef.
Seven people were found in the water, including three who drowned, Romero said. One man was rescued from a cliff and the others managed to reach the shore on their own, he said.
Officials initially said 30 people had been found, but later the Coast Guard said a total of 29 people had been reported, including one man in critical condition and four dead.
The Coast Guard said the crews were still searching as there was no official record of how many people were actually on the boat.
Twenty-five people were transported to hospitals with “a wide variety of injuries,” including hypothermia, Romero said. Most of the victims managed to reach ambulances, he said.
Officials said the ship was larger than typical open-top wooden panga boats, often used by smugglers to smuggle people into the United States from Mexico.
WATCH: Officials give an update after a boat capsized from San Diego
“Any indication from our point of view is that this is a smuggled ship. We have not confirmed their nationality,” said Jeff Stevenson, a supervisory agent at the US Border Patrol.
A man believed to be the operator of the 40-foot ship has been taken into custody as a “suspected smuggler”.
It is not clear where the boat is headed and not a word about what caused the boat to capsize.
This happened in the federal water jurisdiction, so federal officials will take over the investigation. San Diego is helping the federal government.
On Thursday, border guards intercepted a panga-type ship traveling 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 found that all were Mexican citizens without legal status to enter the United States, according to a statement issued by Customs and Border Protection. Two of the people on the boat, suspected of smuggling, will face charges, the statement said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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