‘It was absolutely horrific’: Witnesses helped rescue migrants in boat crash off Point Loma that killed four
Three people died and more than two dozen were injured when a boat was caught in a strong rip current, crashed into a reef and broke apart off Point Loma on Sunday.
28 survived what authorities said was a human smuggling attempt.
At first some thought it was a fishing boat coming close to the shoreline.
It wasn’t until the boat had splintered into pieces off Point Loma the morning of May 2 that they realized the magnitude of the catastrophe: More than two dozen passengers were packed onto the 40-foot, trawler-style boat, which was fighting the waves, wind and rocks and losing.
What authorities called a human smuggling attempt turned deadly at the Cabrillo National Monument tide pools. Several witnesses were among the first rescuers; they jumped into the choppy ocean and swam out to passengers, many struggling to swim.
At least three people were killed and more than two dozen were injured May 2 when an overloaded boat crashed into a reef and broke apart in rough water off Point Loma in what authorities said was a human smuggling attempt.
Authorities said the boat crashed into a reef at about 10 a.m. and soon tore apart. Video recorded by witnesses shows waves slamming into the boat, pushing it further onto the reef and tilting it on its side. Two men jumped off while others held on for their lives as orange life jackets washed up onshore.
Authorities said four people died, including a 29-year-old man and two women, ages 35 and 41, while 28 others survived. Among the survivors was a 15-year-old unaccompanied boy.
All but two people aboard were Mexican nationals without legal authorization to enter the United States, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. One passenger was identified as a Guatemalan national, and the captain is a U.S. citizen.
The captain, whose name was not released, was treated in a hospital and turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Rustin Brown, a former Navy sailor, was at the tide pools with his wife and their two children when he noticed the boat, which he thought appeared abandoned at first. Then, just before it crashed into the rocks, he saw several men jump off.
“But not until the boat broke in pieces were the people exposed inside,” Brown said.
The 48-year-old said he and others helped pull two men and a woman to shore, while other good Samaritans and park rangers brought in others.
Brown said he also stood on a rock and pointed to people in the water who needed help, directing at least two other rescuers who swam out to them.
One of them was Cale Foy, a Navy air crewman who braved the waves and kept a victim afloat until lifeguards on a boat scooped them up, said San Diego lifeguard Lt. Rick Romero.
Foy said he was on a hike with his wife and their three children when he saw people jumping into the ocean. He handed his wife his car keys and phone and joined them.
“Once I saw people in need, the switch came on and I was at it,” said the 36-year-old Coronado resident. Another man Foy said was in training to be a Navy SEAL joined Foy. The man was not identified.
In 60-degree water, the men swam around debris and plowed through 5- to 6-foot surf. They rested on what appeared to be the top of the boat’s cabin, where they caught their breath and came up with a game plan. The floating debris, they decided, would be their “casualty collection point.”
With the help of Brown as their spotter, Foy and the other man took people to the debris, to which they could cling until they were rescued.
When Foy reached an unconscious woman, he encircled her chest with one arm in a cross chest carry, intended for rescues through heavy surf.
Soon after, lifeguards on a boat arrived to assist. On the rescue boat, Foy helped do CPR on the way to a dock.
Romero said that when he and other lifeguards arrived, he looked out into the water and saw a “sea of debris.”
Lifeguards pulled a total of seven people from the water, including two unconscious victims who drowned, Romero said.
Among the shocked witnesses was state Assemblyman Chris Ward, who was at the tide pools with his 7-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son. Ward said he didn’t think much of the boat at first; he assumed it was an anchored fishing boat that got a little too close to the shore.
Then people started to point at the boat. The vessel was rocking and the top “started to snap off,” Ward said.
“And then things just started to get violent,” he said. “It was absolutely horrific.”
As the boat came apart, many passengers emerged. Some were holding onto the boat and seemed to want to jump off it, but the motion of the waves pulled them back.
“It was really treacherous,” Ward said. “The water was really rough there.”
Ward walked up to the parking lot for a cell signal and called 911. Authorities apparently were already aware of the boat but not the exact number of passengers; a dispatcher asked Ward if he was sure there were a lot of passengers on board.
Romero said a boat towing company alerted lifeguards to the boat as it drifted toward the shoreline. They were initially told one person was on board.
The mass rescue effort involved about 100 people, including fire, rescue, lifeguard and Navy personnel.
Romero said lifeguards tried to save as many people as they could.
“We know in the rescue world that doesn’t always happen,” he said.
Ward said the tragic event was a reminder of the “need to do better” on federal immigration policies.
“We know about this and we read about it in the paper,” he said. “It is just horrifying to see firsthand, because you know it’s a humanitarian crisis that brought them there.”
Human and drug smugglers increasingly have turned to the Pacific Ocean in recent years as the Trump administration tightened border infrastructure on land. In fiscal 2020, Border Patrol agents detained about 1,200 people during maritime smuggling attempts — a 92 percent increase compared with fiscal 2019, said Jeff Stephenson, a supervisory Border Patrol agent.
— San Diego Union-Tribune staff writer Karen Kucher contributed to this report.