Eight people are dead after two boats crashed off the San Diego coast late Saturday night, and authorities are searching for what they believe are seven additional victims, officials from San Diego Fire and Rescue said Sunday.
Authorities said they suspected the vessels were involved in smuggling.
The panga boats capsized around 11:30 p.m., officials said, adding that a Spanish-speaking female passenger on another boat that made it to the shore of Black's Beach called 911 to report that victims of the other boat were in the water.
“The woman who called stated that the boat that overturned had 15 people on it, but that was just an estimate,” according to U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer Richard Brahm.
Officials from the San Diego fire and police departments, Customs and Border Protection, the U.S. Coast Guard and state and local lifeguards were among those who responded to the scene.
The dispatcher used GPS information from the caller’s phone to determine the location of the capsized boat, which authorities said was about 800 yards north of Black Gold Road in La Jolla.
The first group of lifeguards waded through the waters on foot because high tide prevented access to the beach, according to the information shared by San Diego Fire and Rescue. A couple hundred yards in, they found lifeless bodies on a patch of dry sand, two overturned panga boats and several lifejackets and fuel barrels, officials said.
Lifeguards carried the seven bodies they initially found in the water to dry sand, and officers with Customs and Border Protection's Air and Marine Operations found the eighth body, officials said.
Coast Guard Petty Officer Eddie Berrios confirmed eight people had died and teams were searching for at least seven more. He didn’t know what kind of boats they were in but said pangas — small open boats with outboard engines used in smuggling operations — often come ashore there.
Officials said some or all of the remaining passengers could have escaped via the beach about 15 miles north of downtown San Diego.
Brahm didn’t know if anyone on the second boat had been injured or apprehended by Border Patrol.
It was unclear if any arrests had been made, and the nationalities of the passengers were not known.
Representatives for the San Diego Police Department and Customs and Border Protection did not immediately respond to questions.
The incident was one of the deadliest migrant smuggling operations ever in the area, said Eric Lavergne, a Border Patrol spokesperson. In May 2021, a packed boat used in a human smuggling operation capsized and broke apart in powerful surf along the rocky San Diego coast, killing three people and injuring more than two dozen others.
Illegal crossings have soared under President Joe Biden, with many migrants turning themselves in to Border Patrol agents and being released in the United States to pursue their cases in immigration court.
Daniel Eddy, San Diego Fire-Rescue’s deputy chief of operations, said there was a long debris field on Black’s Beach, which is jointly owned by the city and the state.
Pangas, small open boats with outboard engines that are frequently used in smuggling operations, often come ashore along the wide stretch of sand that’s also known as Torrey Pines City Beach and Torrey Pines State Beach, officials said.
This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.