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1 killed, 5 injured as suspected smuggling boat capsizes

Ten other apparent illegal immigrants are taken into custody after being tossed from a 30-foot fishing boat into the chilly waters off Torrey Pines state beach in San Diego.

January 17, 2010|By Tony Perry and Patrick J. McDonnell

A boat packed with suspected illegal immigrants capsized early Saturday in the surf off a state beach in San Diego, leaving one migrant dead and triggering a search-and-rescue effort that lasted throughout the day, authorities said.

The incident illustrates an uptick in maritime smuggling along the U.S.-Mexico border as smugglers respond to a buildup of forces and barriers at the land boundary separating San Diego from Baja California.

Six people from the capsized vessel were rushed to area hospitals, but one died en route, said Jackie Dizdul, a spokeswoman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Another was reported in critical condition.

A coroner's report said the dead man was an unidentified Latino who was found floating in the ocean and was pronounced dead upon arrival at UC San Diego Thornton Hospital after efforts to revive him failed.

U.S. immigration officials arrested 10 other suspected illegal immigrants who were unhurt, officials said.

Federal authorities on the ground and in a helicopter were looking for other possible survivors who may have taken off on foot through Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, said Maurice Luque, a spokesman for the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department. Offshore, a pair of Coast Guard vessels and a helicopter were searching the chilly waters in case anyone remained in the surf.

"We just want to verify and make sure no one's out there," said Lt. Josh Nelson of the Coast Guard in San Diego. He said a person could survive in the 60-degree waters for a maximum of about 12 hours before succumbing to hypothermia.

The incident occurred about 4:30 a.m. just off the shore of Torrey Pines, a popular beach and hiking spot between the tourist destinations of La Jolla and Del Mar.

The 30-foot fishing boat, equipped with an outboard motor, was headed to shore to drop off its passengers when it got caught in the waves and capsized, throwing everyone into the water, Luque said. The vessel was about 15 to 30 feet from the beach, Luque said, and went down amid hard-breaking waves up to 6 feet high.

San Diego police and a Customs and Border Protection helicopter on routine patrol went to the scene. Eventually, Luque said, as many as 100 rescue personnel showed up, including police officers, firefighters, lifeguards, Coast Guard members, state park rangers and immigration officers.

A total of 29 life jackets were found, Luque said, but authorities say some may have been extras. The survivors were wearing orange life jackets, he said. The suspected smuggling boat was seized and towed onto land, Luque said.

The incident comes as authorities have noted an increase in maritime smuggling along the border in recent months, said Lauren Mack, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in San Diego.

During the 12 months that ended Sept. 30, Mack said, more than 400 people were arrested in San Diego County in connection with smuggling attempts via the sea. That was about double the number from the previous year, she said.

Smugglers typically use fishing boats known as pongas, often leaving Mexico in the dark and, in an effort to avoid detection, not using their lights before offloading their passengers along a beach in San Diego County, Mack said. A few cases have also involved jet skis and surfboards.

tony.perry@latimes.com

patrick.mcdonnell @latimes.com

Perry reported from San Diego; McDonnell from Los Angeles.

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