MARINA DEL REY, Calif. (AP) — A suspected smuggling vessel rammed a U.S. Coast Guard chase boat during a counter-drug operation off the California coast, killing one Coast Guardsman and injuring another, authorities said.
The panga — an open, low-sided fishing boat favored by Mexican smugglers — was captured after the Sunday crash near the Channel Islands, west of Malibu.
Authorities say such vessels carrying drugs or illegal immigrants from Mexico have been ranging farther and farther north along the California coast.
Asked whether any drugs were found on the boat seized Sunday, Coast Guard spokesman Adam Eggers said he could not immediately comment.
Chief Petty Officer Terrell Horne III, 34, of Redondo Beach was pronounced dead Sunday after he was brought ashore at Port Hueneme, said James Baroni, Ventura County chief deputy medical examiner.
Horne suffered a traumatic head injury in the crash, Coast Guard officials said.
The second man was treated for minor injuries. His name wasn't released.
Horne and others were aboard a small inflatable boat deployed from the Marina del Rey-based Coast Guard cutter Halibut.
The Halibut's commanding officer, Lt. Stewart Sibert, told a press conference Monday that he and his crew were devastated by the loss of the man he called the best shipmate he had ever known.
"He was my friend, he was my confidante, he was the glue that held my crew together," Sibert said, choking back tears. "He gave me advice more times than I could count."
Sibert credited Horne with helping to rescue people on a struggling sailboat just a few months ago off of the Channel Islands.
"It was pitch black, the winds were howling, the seas were building and everything was getting worse," Sibert said.
Horne came up with a plan, and his experience and professionalism saved three lives, Sibert said.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Horne and fellow crewmembers of the Halibut "were engaged in an at-sea interdiction when they came under threat by a small vessel that rammed their small boat."
A Coast Guard maritime patrol aircraft spotted the panga before dawn and the cutter was sent to intercept it, officials said.
The cutter deployed the smaller inflatable chase boat, but as that vessel approached the panga with its blue light flashing, the panga veered toward it at high speed and struck it before fleeing.
Horne and another crewman were thrown into the water.
Another Coast Guard vessel stopped the fleeing panga and detained two suspects.
"Our fallen shipmate stood the watch on the front lines protecting our nation, and we are all indebted to him for his service and sacrifice," said Admiral Robert J. Papp, Coast Guard commandant.
Napolitano said the tragedy was a reminder of the dangers men and women in uniform face daily while protecting the nation. She said her thoughts and prayers were with Horne's family and all Coast Guard personnel.