Three killed, 27 hospitalized after boat capsizes off San Diego

Items from a boat sit on the shoreline at Cabrillo National Monument near where it capsized just off the San Diego coast. AP

Items from a boat sit on the shoreline at Cabrillo National Monument near where it capsized just off the San Diego coast. AP

The boat, he said, was "more like just a contraption" that "apparently just disintegrated" once it hit the reef.

Items from a boat sit on the shoreline at Cabrillo National Monument near where it capsized just off the San Diego coast.

"Conditions were pretty rough - 5-6 feet of surf, windy, cold, the water's around 60 degrees so you get hypothermic pretty quickly", Romero said.

"It is very rocky over there, and the waves, while they weren't too high, they looked pretty strong" - enough to slam a boat into the rocks, he said.

Lifeguards, the U.S. Coast Guard and other agencies responded to the scene after reports of an overturned vessel in the surf near the rocky peninsula.

"Every indication from our perspective is that this was a smuggling vessel used to smuggle migrants into the United States illegally", Jeff Stephenson, Supervisory Border Patrol Agent, said.

Stephenson said the boat was "severely overcrowded" when the incident occurred. One person was rescued from a cliff and 22 others managed to make it to shore, he said.

While there were life jackets aboard the vessel, it's unknown how many passengers or crew were using them, he said.

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Among the rescuers was an unnamed Navy sailor who was in the area with his family and jumped in the water to assist someone in an effort described by Romero as a "huge help".

"Twenty-nine people have reportedly been accounted for, consisting of twenty-four people alive, four people declared deceased by local emergency medical services personnel and one person who was last reported to be in critical condition", according to the U.S. Coast Guard statement that was issued shortly before 11:30 p.m. ET Sunday.

"The reality is crossing the border illegally is unsafe no matter the method, especially at sea", he said. "The smugglers, they don't care about the people they're exploiting".

"We're assuming that it was illegal migration, but generally they are smaller, in the 20 to 30-foot range, generally about 20-plus migrants", he said. "All they care about is lining their own pocket for profit". He said the cruiser was probably trying to blend in with commercial traffic and other "legitimate" vessels at sea.

Federal agencies, including Customs and Border Protection, were still searching the water in vessels and aircraft Sunday afternoon.

"We've seen a dramatic increase in the number of maritime smuggling attempts recently", Chief Patrol Agent Aaron Heitke with CBP's San Diego sector said in the news release. Smugglers typically face federal charges and those being smuggled are usually deported.

Border Patrol said law enforcement officials would be ramping up operations to disrupt maritime smuggling off the coast of San Diego. Just last Thursday, Customs and Border Protection agents intercepted a panga 11 miles off the coast of Point Loma that was carrying 21 Mexican citizens suspected of trying to enter the USA illegally, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported.

The 21 people included 15 men and six women who were Mexican nationals with no legal status to enter the United States, CBP said.

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