SAN DIEGO – Twenty-five years of training prepared lifeguard Ben Lewis for the moment.
“This was the one,” Lewis said. “This was not a training exercise, but this was the one. We were proud to rescue the survivors that we could.”
Lewis of the San Diego Lifeguards was among the first to respond Sunday to the call of what initially sounded like one person requiring vessel assistance. Not long afterwards, it became a full-scale disaster response as a suspected smuggling boat capsized off the coast of Point Loma.
The 40-foot cabin cruiser crashed into the shoreline near Cabrillo National Monument and capsized, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. All the occupants jumped in the water as the boat slowly broke apart, a bystander’s video showed.
“That boat had disintegrated and there was no longer a boat,” Lewis said. “It was a debris field in the water.”
Three people were declared dead by the county medical examiner, including a 41-year-old woman, a 35-year-old woman and a man of unknown age, records show. A total of 29 people survived the ocean accident, which Monday morning suspended its efforts to locate any other victims at sea.
Five of those people remained in the hospital as of Monday, according to Border Patrol.
All but two of the people on board were Mexican nationals who did not have legal status to enter into the U.S., Border Patrol reported. The other two included a person from Guatemala with no legal status to enter the country and a man identified as a U.S. citizen and the captain of the boat.
“Some of them were non-swimmers; some of them it was hard to tell,” Lewis said. “Some of them made it to the beach and managed to get in there.”
Nearly 100 personnel were assigned to the rescue, including medics, fire engine crews and a chaplain. Lewis and his crew on Rescue Boat No. 5 pulled victim after victim on board. They also dragged a Navy rescue swimmer — who dove into the dangerous surf to help — into the boat.
“A lot of people are in a serious time of need,” he said. “Stay calm and think clearly.”
The cause of the accident was under investigation.
Despite all of his years of training, the loss of life in the incident remains difficult for Lewis.
“It’s tough and it can get to you,” he said. “You can definitely think about those types of things. We’re saddened for the families.
“We’re saddened for those individuals and our prayers are with them.”