Authorities said that least eight people are dead and a search for at least seven victims was underway Sunday after a suspected human smuggling operation ended after two boats crashed off the San Diego coast late Saturday night.

James Gartland, chief of the lifeguard division in San Diego, 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 a woman called 911 at about 11:30 p.m. Saturday, saying she was on a panga boat with 15 people aboard that made it to the shore at Blacks Beach. The caller said another panga (small fishing boats with outboard motors often used for smuggling operations) had capsized, and eight people were in the water. Officials from San Diego Fire and Rescue said Sunday that authorities are searching for what they believe are seven additional victims

Officials from the San Diego fire and police departments, Customs and Border Protection, the U.S. Coast Guard and state and local lifeguards were among those who responded to the scene. The capsized boat was located about 800 yards north of Black Gold Road in La Jolla. According to the information shared by San Diego Fire and Rescue, the first group of lifeguards found the victims on a patch of dry sand along with two overturned panga boats and several lifejackets and fuel barrels. Coast Guard Petty Officer Eddie Berrios confirmed eight people had died and teams were searching for at least seven more. Officials said some or all of the remaining passengers could have escaped via the beach about 15 miles north of downtown San Diego.

The incident was one of the deadliest migrant smuggling operations ever in the area. San Diego Fire-Rescue deputy chief of operations Daniel Eddy said there was a long debris field on Black’s Beach, which is jointly owned by the city and the state. Pangas, frequently used in smuggling operations, often come ashore along the wide stretch of sand that’s also known as Torrey Pines City Beach and Torrey Pines State Beach.

Editorial credit: Alexandre Moraes /

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