As It Happens

'It was awful,' says woman who helped survivors of deadly migrant shipwreck off San Diego

When Anita Beckman and her family witnessed a deadly migrant shipwreck off the coast of San Diego, she says she and dozens of other bystanders did what they could to help those stranded in the water make it safely to shore.

3 killed, 5 hospitalized after a vessel capsized and broke apart 30 kilometres from the Mexico-U.S. border

Wreckage and debris from a capsized boat washes ashore at Cabrillo National Monument near where a boat capsized just off the San Diego, Calif., on Sunday. (Denis Poroy/The Associated Press)

Read Story Transcript

What was supposed to be a relaxing day at the beach turned into a dramatic civilian rescue operation for Anita Beckman and her family on Sunday.

Beckman, her husband, children and sister-in-law witnessed a deadly migrant shipwreck off the coast of San Diego on Sunday. She says she and dozens of other bystanders did what they could to help those stranded in the water make it safely to shore.

"I just went in and started helping people get out of the water all the way onto the beach and get their wet clothes off, get dry clothes on them. Civilians were giving their dry clothes to all of them. They were shivering, hypothermic," Beckman, 54, told As It Happens host Carol Off.

"There's just so many people in need. I mean, there just isn't any question about whether or not to help."

Migrant boat capsizes off coast of San Diego

1 month ago
0:15
This witness footage shows a trawler-style vessel with 32 people aboard as it overturns and breaks apart Sunday near the Point Loma Tide Pools, Calif. (Submitted by Anita Beckman) 0:15

The U.S. Coast Guard on Monday called off its search for more survivors from the boat that capsized off a rocky shoal Sunday in what authorities said was an ill-fated migrant-smuggling operation that left three dead and five hospitalized.

The 12-metre trawler-style vessel with 32 people aboard overturned and broke apart on Sunday near the Point Loma Tide Pools about 30 kilometres north of the U.S.-Mexico border, authorities said.

Officials on Sunday said four people aboard the boat had died, but the Coast Guard on Monday revised the death toll downward to three, citing information from the San Diego County Medical Examiner's office.

You're watching people just really struggle for their life right in front of you.- Anita Beckman 

Beckman and her husband were strolling towards the beach when they first spotted the boat on the horizon, bobbing in the water. The pair have raced sailboats in the past, so they knew immediately that something was terribly wrong. As it came closer to shore, they could smell "a lot of gasoline."

"We saw people start coming out of the boat, and then right away the boat tipped and bobbed and people were falling off. And then like 25 people came out of the boat just so quickly and were jumping into the water. It was awful," Beckman said.

"There were so many people in the water. Clearly, several of them had no idea how to swim. Several of them were grabbing onto parts of the boat to stay afloat and kicked their way in. They were coming in with gashes, head injuries."

Firefighters assist as San Diego Lifeguards lift a patient after the deadly shipwreck. (San Diego Fire-Rescue Department/Reuters)

More than a dozen beachgoers immediately sprang into action, she said, with some swimming out to help stranded migrants, and others, herself included, wading into the shallower water to help people make the final stretch of the journey to shore.

Before long, local first-responders were also on the scene. Beckett says she witnessed an EMT revive one man who fell unconscious. Another man, she said, couldn't stop vomiting sea water.

"You're watching people just really struggle for their life right in front of you," she said.

The U.S. Coast Guard on Monday called off its search for more survivors from a boat that capsized off a rocky shoal near San Diego in what authorities said was an ill-fated migrant-smuggling operation that left 3 dead and 5 hospitalized. (Submitted by Anita Beckman)

The U.S. Coast Guard said Monday that 29 people were rescued. Five of those survivors are  his hospital, and one is in critical condition.

"Yesterday, we were once again reminded how dangerous these ocean smuggling attempts can be and we will continue to work with our local, state and federal partners to prevent, detect and respond to cases like this to keep the waters of San Diego safe and secure," Capt. Timothy Barelli, the sector San Diego commander, said in a press release.

U.S. Border Patrol agent Jeff Stephenson, who spoke to reporters on Sunday, said the vessel appeared to have been  involved in an attempt to smuggle migrants from Mexico into the United States. He said the passengers' nationalities were not immediately known, but that the vessel's captain was in custody and speaking with investigators.

Anita Beckman, second from the left, is pictured here with her husband and two children. The San Diego family was at the beach on Sunday when a migrant ship capsized off the coast. (Submitted by Anita Beckman)

Beckman, who speaks Spanish, says some of the survivors told her they came from an island just off of Tijuana the day before.

"I talked to a girl who came. She was 18 years old. She looked like the youngest person on the boat. She said she was escaping an abusive parent," she said.

"There were a husband and wife on the boat. There were a couple of men who were strong and young and you just could see, as frightened as they were, they were physically OK, they were unharmed. And you could see some excitement in them, some relief that they were here."

Authorities said they had seen a marked increase in maritime human smuggling in recent years. The vessel involved in Sunday's incident was larger and carried more people than most smuggling boats, according to a statement from U.S. Customs and Border Patrol.

"All of these illegal crossings at sea are inherently dangerous, and we have seen too many turn from risky to tragic as smugglers sacrifice the safety of those on board for the sake of profits," Chief Patrol Agent Aaron Heitke said. 

Beckman doesn't know what will happen to the survivors now, but she hopes they'll be given a fair shake at asylum.

"My husband thinks that they'll be brought back right away, but I hope that each of their stories will be considered," she said.

"I don't think I don't know how many Americans really, truly appreciate what we have here. We were very fortunate to live in this country."


Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Reuters. Interview with Anita Beckman produced by Rachel Adams. 

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now

now