Officials give update on deadly boat accident in San Diego

Officials in San Diego provided details into Sunday morning's deadly accident involving a smuggler and an overcrowded boat that capsized in the ocean. Watch their remarks.

Video Transcript

RICK ROMERO: Good afternoon, Rick Romero, R-I-C-K R-O-M-E-R-O, Lifeguard Lieutenant with San Diego Fire Rescue. So a call came in at 9:56 from a commercial assistance vessel, saying there's a vessel offshore near the surf line that looks like they're going to be in trouble.

And so we sent a rescue boat initially as a check on. And then as we kept getting updates on the Marine Channel 16, that they were getting closer to shore. Only one person on board was the initial report. And then a few minutes after that, they're going to be in the surf line. We sent a response by land and by vessels, jet ski, and a rescue boat.

Once we arrived on scene, the boat had been basically broken apart. A 40-foot cabin cruiser with multiple people on board. The first report from the commercial assistance vessel was three or four people with PFDs waving for help. That turned into much more people as we started getting on scene and analyzing the scene.

There was people in the water, drowning, getting sucked out the rip current there. There was people on shore. The reports were CPR in progress down below with multiple people injured. And then we had two jet skis, three rescue boats come in. We picked up about 7 people in the water. Two of them were face down and drowned. And then there those who were transported over to San Diego Harbor Police Dock.

Federal Fire was there assisting with the initial medical triage. And then once we saw it was going to be a bigger situation with more people, the numbers kept on increasing, we called for more resources, the SDFD, more ambulances and more rescue staff.

A total of about 30 people were involved in that boat, three of which were pronounced deceased. We did rescue about six people out of the water. And then Cliff extricated one person with our cliff rescue vehicle. So a lot of moving parts.

Federal fire was there. Lifeguards, SDFD. Of course, the park rangers there with Department of Interior, US Coast Guard, sending of Port Police boats, and of course, Border Patrol. So a lot of things going on all at once.

Our goal was just to rescue everyone we can from the water and on the beach. And get them up safely, transported to the hospital as quickly as we can. And that's what happened. That's what we did.

- We understand that there were four people in CPR status. Three have passed away. What about that fourth victim?

RICK ROMERO: I can't confirm that four. I know it's three people doing CPR and those three had died.

- Can you talk about the other injuries?

RICK ROMERO: They ranged from just hypothermia and others just from injuries caused by the breaking of the vessel. I can't confirm how many people had serious injuries, but there were a wide variety of injuries. Most of the people were able to walk themselves or swim to shoreline.

But there was six to seven people who just got sucked out that rip and were just getting pulled out to sea. That's when the lifeguard, the jet skis, the rescue [INAUDIBLE] were putting people on board the vessel. Two of them were just unconscious. And we direct transported to San Diego Port Police Dock.

- How many men, women, or children?

RICK ROMERO: I don't have all that information.

- Now, we understand-- is anybody still--

RICK ROMERO: That's unknown, so I don't know.

- So there could possibly be more people out there.

RICK ROMERO: There was a lot of people on the boat, yeah. So I don't have-- there's no manifest on the vessel, so we don't know.

- Are you still out there searching?

RICK ROMERO: The Coast Guard is out there right now conducting a cursory search of the area.

- Now, this happened at the Tidal Pools for Cabrillo National Monument. There were a lot of civilians there. Did any of them attempt to help these people?

RICK ROMERO: Yes, there was one, I think, Navy staff member that jumped in. He was down there with his family. I don't have his info, but he swam all the way out and was with someone and assisted in saving. So that's a huge help. He was put on board one of our lifeguard vessels.

- We were actually told that he was a Navy rescue diver. So well trained for this.

RICK ROMERO: Yeah, perfect. Yeah, so huge help. That's a-- conditions were pretty rough. Five to six feet of surf, windy, cold, the water is around 60 degrees. So you can get hypothermic pretty quickly. And then whether or not they were wearing PFDs or not-- some jumped in the water immediately.

The boat was on the reef, bouncing back and forth and then just slowly disintegrated into a bunch of pieces. So there's no boat there. It's all debris. So the actual breaking of the vessel could cause a lot of damage to people as well.

- Any life vests?

RICK ROMERO: There were lots of life vests out there, yes.

- Were they were wearing them?

RICK ROMERO: I can't confirm they were wearing them? People were just jumping in to save themselves.

- They said it was a 40-foot cabin cruiser, but 40 people on a 40-foot cabin cruiser [INAUDIBLE].

RICK ROMERO: The count was 30 people.

- So way overcrowded.

RICK ROMERO: Overcrowded, yes.

- Do we know where this boat came from?

RICK ROMERO: I do not know.

- Can we ask, were there any minors?

RICK ROMERO: No, I don't have that info. Come on up.

JEFF STEPHENSON: Hello, my name's Jeff Stephenson. I'm a supervisory Border Patrol agent, San Diego sector. It's J-E-F-F, last time S-T-E-P-H-E-N-S-O-N.

- Can you talk about your agency's efforts?

JEFF STEPHENSON: So every indication from our perspective is that this was a smuggling vessel used to smuggle migrants into the United States illegally. We haven't confirmed the nationality of the people involved. But our agents are with many of them at the hospital. And the man who we believe was the operator, agents are with him, and a suspected smuggler. But the investigation is still unfolding.

- And this weekend, you guys were supposed to have a maximum enforcement, having more people out in the water, more people by air and sea, looking for folks like that.

JEFF STEPHENSON: Yeah, so, this weekend we worked with our DHS partners, Coast Guard, CBP and Marine operations, who's here, and you can also speak with. And we were putting more resources out on the water to interdict vessels like this. And we announced it in advance to try to deter as much as we could, to send a message to smugglers, the sea, the ocean's inherently unsafe.

The reality is, crossing the border illegally is unsafe, no matter the method, especially at sea, with water temperatures being what they are, and as a lifeguard described, high surf. It's a very dangerous scenario. And the smugglers really just don't care about the people they're exploiting. All they care about is lining their own pocket for profit.

- What does that tell you about the level of desperation and/or the greed of the smugglers?

JEFF STEPHENSON: As I said, the smugglers, they don't care about the people they're exploiting. All they care about is profit. To them, these people are just commodities. So you can see that in the way they treat them.

Inadequate safety equipment, really poorly equipped vessels, and giving them minimal-- sometimes they'll give them flotation devices and life jackets, but they're old, they're tattered. There's not like normal equipment you'd see. And they pack them of these vessels. Obviously, this one was severely overcrowded.

- Is it safe to assume the boat was from Mexico? And as far as that may be [INAUDIBLE]?

JEFF STEPHENSON: As far as the origination of the vessel itself, who knows. But the origination point, a lot of them we see coming out of like the Rosarito area. But they originate from various different beaches down there along the Baja coast and make their way up north.

- This being a fairly large boat, it has to I assume came out of a port.

JEFF STEPHENSON: I couldn't say.

- Now you guys mentioned in that release an increase of Maritime smuggling. Why do you think there is an increase in that method of smuggling?

JEFF STEPHENSON: So with the increase in border infrastructure and patrols on the land, the smugglers look to any vulnerability they think there is. And they're looking for any method they can to move what they view as a commodity. So that's the most likely scenario. But the reality is it's just one more method of smuggling. By land is what we usually see. And we see it by sea in incidents like this.

This is not nothing new. We've seen this on the ebb and flow, up and down throughout the years. But these last couple of years, we've seen a dramatic increase. Last year, comparing FY20 to FY19, we had about a 92% increase in apprehensions in the Maritime domain. And this year, we're seeing a pretty steady increase as well, that it will probably be by the end of the year at least equal to what we had last year.

- Now with this operation, and you guys having extra resources out in the water, have you guys encountered this boat or was it on your radar or anything like that before this actually happened?

JEFF STEPHENSON: So there's no indication that we were aware of the boat or anything like that. And what a lot of the smugglers do is they try to blend in with commercial traffic. Obviously, this type of vessel, it's not an open Panga that we see sometimes. So the likelihood is, and I can't speak specifically, but likely that they were trying to blend in with other commercial traffic in the area and the other legitimate vessels.

So even if we did see it, it wouldn't necessarily raise any red flags potentially. But I can't really speak to this specific one. But there was no indication that we knew this vessel was being used to smuggle people illegally.

- And then that 90% number that you said, that's a year to year comparison of what, the month of April to last April?

JEFF STEPHENSON: So our fiscal year runs from October 1 to September, the end of September, September 31st. So that's for FY 20. We had a 92% increase in apprehensions in the Maritime environment. So our total was a little over 1,200. And so that was compared to the previous fiscal year.

- Can you say, did you have crews in the water at the time? Probably not in the area, because of weather.

JEFF STEPHENSON: As far as that, I would have to defer to our Air Marine Operations Branch.

BRANDON TUCKER: Good afternoon. My name is Brandon Tucker. B-R-A-N-D-O-N T-U-C-K-E-R.

- Can you step up just a little more if you don't mind? Thank you.

BRANDON TUCKER: I'm the deputy director Air Operations at San Diego Air and Marine Branch. At the time of this incident-- we did get the call sometime after 10:30 this morning. We did not have a coastal interceptor underway at that time. But crews scrambled quickly and got underway to get on scene. We also responded with AS350 A-Star helicopter out of Brown field. We got that aircraft airborne at 11:20. It was overhead by 11:30.

By then, the pilot reported to me that all people had been plucked out of the water. They went to shore. He did witness two Coast Guard cutters on scene, several pleasure craft, jet skis, the lifeguards on scene as well.

So we did not have an aircraft airborne at the time of the incident, although the aircraft did get airborne shortly after. And then we had a scheduled Maritime patrol somewhat later as well, but not airborne at the time.

- Can you say how many other boats you may have intercepted since this operation started, what was it, Friday afternoon? Have you caught anybody else that we didn't know about, not as tragic end as this. Was there any other boats you guys caught?

BRANDON TUCKER: Certainly, not as tragic as this. But negative, no other boats had been located last night. However, we did release a press release on Thursday, where there was a Panga interdicted, multirole aircraft detected this vessel coming in from the Maritime boundary line from Mexico. And we called in and intercepted it with a coastal interceptor vessel on Thursday. And with 21 migrants on board. And we can provide that press release again if you don't have that one. But we did intercept that vessel on Thursday.

- Are you guys going to continue this operation?

BRANDON TUCKER: For Air and Marine's perspective, we're out there seven days a week, 24 hours a day. So we do focus operations here and there. When we have additional resources available to us, we do surge. But Air and Marine is out in the waters and air offshore San Diego 24/7, 365.

- Can you talk about the magnitude of finding 30 people on one vessel. Is that amount of people on one common? Or is it normally smaller groups on Panga boats?

BRANDON TUCKER: It is normally smaller boats slightly in slightly smaller groups. This one was particularly large for-- of course, 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. This one was a bit larger than normal. But the overcrowding on these vessels, the unsafe conditions on these vessels, it's the same. It's just slightly larger.

- You can't confirm men, women, or children?

BRANDON TUCKER: I can't. I've been trying to get that information. But I can't yet, sorry.

- Can you talk about the [INAUDIBLE] and what charges the [INAUDIBLE] operator might face?

BRANDON TUCKER: I'll defer to prosecutors on what charges. But we do have the boat captain in custody.

- Nationality?

BRANDON TUCKER: Unknown at this time.

- What's the condition of the captain?

BRANDON TUCKER: He's a bit out of it, but he is speaking to agents on scene.

- He was known to your agency?

BRANDON TUCKER: I wouldn't know. Not that I know of.

- So these are really big operations that seem to be taking place. Are these like the drug cartels or human smuggling cartels?

BRANDON TUCKER: I wouldn't know in this particular case, but I would assume that, yes.

- What hospitals? Are they all over the county?

BRANDON TUCKER: I have the numbers, but it's, I think, around eight or nine different hospitals that they were taken to.

JAMES GARTLAND: James Gartland. J-A-M-E-S Gartland-- G-A-R-T-L-A-N-D, Lifeguard Chief for the City of San Diego. So I'll just do a recap. This was a mass rescue operation that turned into a mass casualty incident. We had about 30 rescues when the vessel broke up on the reef.

Lifeguards went out and made seven water rescues. We had three boats out there, three-- two personal watercraft out there. We conducted a cliff rescue with our cliff specialty apparatus. And we had one major trauma and three CPRs. And the majority of the folks that came in were sent off to different hospitals throughout the county.

- So again, when this first started, this just looked like a normal fishing boat caught in the surf. There was no big thing going on. And then suddenly, it just blew up.

JAMES GARTLAND: It came over on VHF as a one person on board vessel drifting to the surf line. Then the vessel hit the reef, broke up, and 30 people came out of the vessel and washed in.

- Did they call for help? Or did someone on shore call for help?

JAMES GARTLAND: Somebody on shore called for help. Any questions?

- Can you talk about the magnitude of this, three lives lost and countless others in the hospital.

JAMES GARTLAND: Yeah, this is a-- yeah, it's a tragedy. Yeah, it's a tragic event here in San Diego. And probably one of the bigger vessel accidents and bigger calls that we've seen here. Certainly in my 26 years and certainly in Lieutenant Romero's 28 years, this is probably the worst tragedy.

- [INAUDIBLE]

JAMES GARTLAND: I'm sorry?

- Is the captain of the boat known to the agency?

JAMES GARTLAND: We do not know who the captain is. He's in custody now.

- And so you guys trained for this moment. How do you feel you guys did?

JAMES GARTLAND: The lifeguards performed excellent. They did the best they could. We have trained for these mass rescue operations. We've had an exercise here at headquarters for this exact type of incident. The lifeguards did lifesaving efforts. They conducted CPR on three of the victims. They made seven water rescues and conducted one cliff rescue.

So it was a big, strong effort by the San Diego Lifeguards, and everybody involved, Federal Fire, SDFD, Harbor Police Department, Customs and Border Patrol, the Coast Guard, the Department of Interior, the Park Rangers, down at Point Loma. So this was a large unified command and an excellent effort by all the rescuers and responders that showed up today.

- Can you give us an observation perhaps, that here you have third world poverty and all sort of other [INAUDIBLE] that are showing up on our shores, that maybe you never thought you'd be training for this kind of operation.

Well, we train to rescue people in the water and that are in trouble, off the cliffs, out in the water. It doesn't matter where they come from or what they're doing. Where we're trained to do it. And we're happy to do it.