In the waters off San Diego, contraband ships often hide their migrant cargoes under cover of darkness. Only the hum of the engines of the panga boats signals their approach to the sleepy coastal neighborhoods.
But on Sunday morning, it was bright and bright when Cale Foy spotted a gruesome sight taking place at the base of the craggy cliffs of Point Loma.
A 40-foot trawler-type boat had crashed into the rocks, knocking over men, women and a teenager in the pounding waves and a ripping current so strong it was pulling a little further from shore.
Foy, a naval crew hiking with his family, didn’t hesitate to dive into the choppy waves.
“Once I saw people in need, the switch clicked and I was there,” said Foy, who took navy lifeguard training. “Our motto for our rescue swimmers is ‘So that others can live’. I guess that was exactly what I was doing.
Of the 32 people on the boat, 29 survived. Seven were rescued from the water, six of them from the floating debris where Foy and another man had left them. Another was hoisted onto a cliff. Three people died, a man and two women, aged 35 and 41.
All but two of the people on board were Mexican nationals, according to US Customs and Border Protection. One of the individuals was from Guatemala and the other, the captain of the boat, was a United States citizen in immigration and customs custody.
In addition to the alleged smuggler, there was an unaccompanied 15-year-old boy, as well as 21 men and six women between the ages of 18 and 39.
The deadly incident comes at a time of escalating maritime smuggling attempts in Southern California and a recently announced effort by federal authorities to halt traffic. Smugglers have taken to sea to avoid stronger law enforcement on land as well as Title 42, officials told The Times. The policy, invoked under a controversial order from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, effectively closed the border to migrants.
Customs and Border Protection Air and Marine Operations on Thursday intercepted a small wooden panga-type vessel with 21 people on board 11 miles off Point Loma. The next day, hoping to avoid riskier attempts, officials announced additional resources dedicated to coastal patrols covering land, air and sea. Operations were to last until Monday.
“We announced it in advance to try to deter as much as possible from sending the message to smugglers, the ocean is inherently dangerous,” said border guard officer Jeff Stephenson. “Water temperatures being what they are… it’s a very dangerous scenario.”
Sunday’s smuggling attempt took place along the west shore of Cabrillo National Monument, a popular recreation area with tidal pools and hiking trails.
Foy was on a family outing with his wife, two sons and daughter when they first spotted what appeared to be an empty boat approaching shore. During the trek, Foy continued to watch the boat come closer to shore, as if it “had no current”.
It was around 10 a.m. and rescuers had been alerted that a ship was having problems near the surf line, but no emergency crew had arrived yet.
When Foy spotted people jumping into the ocean, he handed his wife the keys to the car and his phone.
“I’ll be back,” he told her. “I’ll help.”
Another man, in training to be a Navy SEAL, joined Foy in the rescue. Foy warned him that it would not be a controlled environment, calling it a “life or death situation.”
Few were better suited for rescue: Foy is a naval crew who flies in the backs of helicopters. One of its responsibilities is rescue at sea.
In the 60-degree water, the men swam around the debris and rode in waves of 5 to 6 feet. They rested on what appeared to be the top of the boat’s cabin, where they caught their breath and worked out a game plan. The floating debris, they decided, would be their “casualty collection point.”
Under normal circumstances, Foy would be in a helicopter, able to see everything from above, able to perform the rescue with the proper equipment. This time he got the help of a man standing on the rocks, who pointed them at the passengers.
Foy and the other man took six people, both conscious and unconscious, into the debris, where they were able to hang on for life until they could be saved. Passengers on the boat did not have a flotation device, Foy said.
The observer pointed Foy at an unconscious woman about 75 meters away. When he reached her, he circled her chest with one arm in a crossover portage, meant for rescues through strong waves.
Soon after, a rescue boat arrived to help. Foy helped with CPR on the rescue boat all the way back to San Diego Harbor. The 45 minutes that Foy was in the water “felt like an eternity,” he said.
Lt. Rescuer Rick Romero, a 28-year-old veteran, arrived on a scene like he had never seen before. The boat had completely broken up, leaving only a field of debris. Most of the passengers were able to swim to shore, but Foy had helped several people wade through the water, some face down or being torn off by the current.
A lifeguard was immediately dispatched from land to perform water rescues and another to do medical triage on the beach. Two personal watercraft and two rescue boats also arrived within minutes.
“I’m surprised there weren’t more casualties, to tell you the truth,” said Romero, of the San Diego Fire Department. Had the boat capsized 20 to 30 meters west in deeper water, Romero said, it could have been much worse.
“If it was in deeper water, I think the numbers would have increased for the loss of life,” he said.
Romero praised the rescue efforts of the two men, including Foy.
“This guy [Foy] jumped up and was helping people immediately, he swam and helped save someone, ”Romero said. “He was a huge help.”
Video footage from the scene showed people jumping from the side of the boat as waves crashed over it. The boat bounced back and forth and with each swell disintegrated further, leaving people swaying in the ocean. Orange life jackets washed up on the shore.
The rescue prompted a huge emergency response. US Coast Guard Area San Diego, Port of San Diego Police, San Diego Fire and Rescue Services, San Diego Fire Department, Border Patrol, Air and Marine Operations, the field operations office, homeland security investigations and the national parks service all assisted in the rescue.
Romero said Sunday’s incident was the biggest smuggling attempt he had ever encountered, with traffickers using a larger-than-average boat and carrying more people than normal.
The incident is the latest in a two-year wave. In fiscal 2020, border patrol officers detained around 1,200 people in attempted sea smuggling – a 92% increase from the previous fiscal year, Stephenson said. So far, in FY2021, there have been 156 maritime smuggling incidents and 909 arrests.
The survivors suffered from hypothermia and other injuries from the rupturing of the boat, officials said. Five are still in hospital and one remains in critical condition. On Monday, the Coast Guard suspended its search for any other passengers on the boat.
“We believe we have everyone,” said Lt. Cmdr of the US Coast Guard. Matthew Kroll said.
Kroll said the warmer spring weather was misleading.
“The sea is very unforgiving, especially when it starts to heat up between May and June. It’s kind of a false sense of security that it’s safer, but the water is still very cold, ”Kroll said. “It’s not as easy and risk-free as people think. It is an extremely dangerous path to take.
After the rescue, Foy was separated from his family. He headed for the port of San Diego by boat and did not reach the wharf until two hours had passed. Then he made his way back to Coronado and told his family what happened after he left them on the hiking trail.
“They were sort of in shock,” Foy said. “In shock in a good way.”
Times writer Andrea Castillo contributed to this report.