Eight people have died after two boats capsized off the coast of California, emergency officials have said, with officials suspecting that the craft were being used by people smugglers.

San Diego Fire and Rescue officials received a 911 emergency call at around 11.30pm on Saturday night local time.

The caller reported that she was on a panga boat – a small fishing craft powered by an outboard motor and often used by people smugglers – with 15 people which had made it to Black’s Beach, just north of the city.

“The woman who called stated that the boat that overturned had 15 people on it, but that was just an estimate,” according to Coast Guard petty officer Richard Brahm.

Rescuers set off to the beach after using GPS coordinates to locate the woman’s phone and arrived to find two overturned boats there and bodies spread across hundreds of metres of the coast.

Daniel Eddy, San Diego Fire Rescue’s deputy chief of operations, said debris could be found all along Black’s Beach.

Captain James Spitler, from the US Coast Guard, speaks to members of the media about the incident
Captain James Spitler, from the US Coast Guard, speaks to members of the media about the incident

Several crews searched the area from the air and in the water but thick fog overnight hampered their efforts. The search continued on Sunday, with a Coast Guard cutter combing the sea and a helicopter crew joining the search.

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Speaking on Sunday morning a press conference, San Diego Fire-Rescue Lifeguard Chief James Gartland said: “This is one of the worst smuggling tragedies that I can think of in California, certainly here in the city of San Diego.”

Gartland said that the waters off the beach are deceptive. “That area is very hazardous, even in the daytime. It has a series of sandbars and in-shore rip currents, so you can think that you can land in some sand or get to waist-high, knee-high water and think that you’re able to be safe to exit the water but there’s long, in-shore holes.

“If you step into those holes, those rip currents will pull you along the shore and back out to sea,” he told reporters.

Eric Lavergne of the US Border Patrol said this was one of a few hundred migrant smuggling events recorded in his jurisdiction this year.

The beach is jointly owned by the city of San Diego and the state of California. The stretch of sand is also known as Torrey Pines City Beach and Torrey Pines State Beach and is considered one of the most secluded beaches in the area.

Another coast guard Eddie Berrios confirmed eight people died and teams were searching for at least seven more. Pangas are regularly used by people smugglers in the area: San Diego is just miles from the border with Mexico.

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