SAN DIEGO – A suspected smuggling boat that broke apart in choppy waters near Point Loma Sunday may have been transporting immigrants but Robert Butler says he thinks the owner is local to San Diego.
“We see him around all the time,” Butler said.
Butler owns TowBoatUS San Diego, a tow and salvage service that works hand-in-hand with Geico Insurance. They were the first to call the U.S. Coast Guard when the 40-foot trawler-style vessel capsized on the rocks near the Point Loma Tide Pools in the Cabrillo National Monument.
Butler said they got a call around 8:45 a.m. Sunday from a sailboat next to the boat in trouble. He said he believes the two were traveling together.
“In 30 years of doing this, this was right there as far as one of the gnarliest ones we’ve seen,” he said.
He said once he realized where the boat was stranded and the danger surrounding it, he suggested they call the Coast Guard.
“They were adamant that we don’t call,” Butler said. “So, we called anyway because it’s a safety thing for us.”
A lifeguard who helped rescue passengers from the water said the boat had disintegrated with video showing the field of debris in the water. The Coast Guard suspended its search and response mission in the area Monday morning. Twenty-nine people were rescued and three died.
Butler said some of the casualties were put on the deck of their boat, a vessel capable of navigating kelp without getting stuck. The suspected smuggler is now in custody, according to officials. Butler said he’s well known and anchors near North Island, an area known as “the zoo.”
“It’s basically where people anchor for free,” Butler said. “They’re known as bouncers. They know exactly how long they can stay before they have to move on to the next spot.”
The Coast Guard said the incident is still under investigation.
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