At least three people were killed and 27 were hospitalized when a boat overturned off the coast of San Diego on Sunday during a possible human trafficking operation, authorities said.
San Diego firefighters and other agencies responded to a call on Sunday morning that a commercial vessel appeared to be in trouble, firefighter rescuer Lt. Rick Romero told a news conference.
“Once we got to the scene, the boat had essentially been broken,” he said, adding that the boat was determined to be a 40-foot cruise ship “with several people on board.”
The first report from a commercial assistance vehicle indicated that there were only three or four people on board. But once firefighters got to the scene, Romero said, that number grew into a lot more.
Rescue efforts pulled at least seven people from the water, including two who had drowned, Romero added. Another person has died, officials said, and 27 were taken to local hospitals.
The ship has been determined to be a contraband vessel of unknown origin, said Jeff Stephenson, a border guard for the San Diego division.
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Federal agencies, including customs and border protection, were still looking for water in ships and planes Sunday afternoon. The incident took place within federal water jurisdiction, KGTV reported.
Cabrillo National Monument is a California historic monument commemorating the first time a European expedition landed on what has become the West Coast of the United States.
Border patrol said on Friday that law enforcement officials would step up operations to disrupt maritime smuggling in the region this weekend. Border authorities on Thursday intercepted a panga-type vessel traveling without navigation lights 18 kilometers off the coast of Point Loma with 21 people on board.
Officers determined that all were Mexican citizens without legal status to enter the United States, according to a statement released by Customs and Border Protection.
Border Patrol saw a 92% increase in maritime smuggling operations last year and is on track to see similar numbers this year due to increased border protections, Stephenson said.
The area has also seen several boat incidents in recent years.
In July, an amphibious assault ship caught fire at Naval Station San Diego, causing an onboard explosion that injured 63 people and filled the sky with black smoke, officials said.
And in August, another amphibious assault ship sank on San Clemente Island in the region, killing nine service members.
Contribute: The Associated Press