james gartland san diego fire rescue
Firefighter describes difficult search for bodies after smuggling boat capsizes
01:01 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

The US Coast Guard in San Diego has ended its search for missing migrants after two smuggling boats were found capsized along the California shoreline over the weekend, leaving eight people dead in what officials called “one of the worst maritime smuggling tragedies” the city has seen amid a spike in human trafficking.

The boats were found around 11:30 p.m. Saturday along the shore of San Diego County’s Black’s Beach after a woman aboard one called 911 to report trouble on a small fishing vessel carrying 15 people and another with eight people, said Chief James Gartland, lifeguard chief for the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department.

Lifeguards “in rescue mode” battled high tide and low visibility, he said. After wading through “knee to waist deep water,” they reached a stretch of beach strewn with bodies and dotted with life jackets and fuel tanks, the fire department said in a release.

“After about an hour of searching and recovering bodies, we were in recovery mode for about five hours,” Gartland said, adding, “Nobody encountered any survivors … People may have left the beach; we’re not sure.”

Though authorities have given few details about the passengers or their voyage, the incident marks another “tragedy” as human trafficking along the Southern California coast has spiked since 2017, said Capt. James Spitler, sector commander for the US Coast Guard in San Diego.

“This is not necessarily people trying to find a better life,” he said, referring to boats transporting migrants. “This is part of a transnational criminal organization effort to smuggle people into the United States. These people are often labor-trafficked and sex-trafficked when they arrive.”

Surfers walk Sunday by a panga boat sitting along Black's Beach in San Diego.

Other deadly incidents involving suspected smuggling boats along San Diego’s coastline include the death of one person and the detention of at least 15 others after authorities rescued them in 2021 near Point Loma. At least three people also died that year after a suspected smuggling boat carrying 32 people overturned near Point Loma.

Most of those found dead are believed to be Mexican nationals, consulate says

In the latest incident, seven bodies were found on the beach and an eighth was later discovered by Customs and Border Protection officers, the release said. All were adults, Gartland said, adding none were found wearing life jackets.

All but one of the people found dead were from Mexico, the Mexican consulate in San Diego said in a news release Monday, citing identification some were carrying.

The victims’ remains were taken to the San Diego County Medical Examiner, the fire department said.

Boat salvager Robert Butler picks up a canister Sunday in one of the two boats sitting on Black's Beach.

Reports that one of the fishing vessels, known as pangas, had made it to shore conflicted. San Diego Police, US Customs and Border Protection and the US Coast Guard also responded, the release said.

It’s unclear what caused the pangas to capsize, but conditions that night were pitch black and foggy, Gartland said. The vessels overturned in a “very hazardous area” where inshore holes and rip currents could easily pull people out to sea, he said.

“This is one of the worst maritime smuggling tragedies that I can think of in California, certainly here in the city of San Diego,” Gartland said, offering his condolences to the victims’ families.

CNN’s Emma Tucker, Raja Razek and Tina Burnside contributed to this report.