8 dead after 2 boats capsize near California shore

Life jackets seen in a small boat on a beach in San Diego on March 12, after two suspected smuggling boats capsized off the coast of southern California. PHOTO: REUTERS

LOS ANGELES – At least eight people were killed when two suspected smuggling boats overturned off the coast of southern California, local rescuers said on Sunday.

It was unclear exactly what caused the night-time accident, in an area San Diego lifeguard chief James Gartland described as “hazardous” due to sandbars and rip currents.

“We lost eight souls,” Mr Gartland told a press conference.

“This is one of the worst maritime smuggling tragedies that I can think of in California, certainly here in the city of San Diego,” he added, in apparent reference to clandestine migration into the United States.

Mr Gartland said a Spanish speaker had called the 911 emergency number just before midnight on Saturday, saying there were some 23 people between two small, open boats – eight on one vessel and 15 on another – that had overturned at Torrey Pines beach in San Diego, a city near the Mexican border.

Rescuers did not find any survivors, but some “may have left the beach” by the time the first responder teams arrived on scene, said Mr Gartland.

All of those who died were adults, he added, saying he had no further details on their nationalities.

Mr James Spitler, a sector commander for the San Diego Coast Guard, said the small “panga” boat – an open boat with an outboard motor, often used for fishing – with more passengers “overturned in the surf”, while the other boat managed to reach the shoreline.

Once on the scene, emergency responders found both vessels on the shore, and began recovering bodies from the water, according to Mr Gartland.

Large numbers of migrants from South and Central America cross US borders clandestinely, often taking enormous risks in hopes of reaching the United States.

San Diego is close to the US-Mexico border. Mr Spitler said there has been a 771 per cent increase in human trafficking recorded in the southern California coastal region since 2017, with “23 lives lost at sea”. AFP

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.