An overnight snowstorm in a mountainous route used by illegal immigrants overtook dozens of people Thursday, killing at least seven and prompting a major rescue effort for the others that was still under way on Friday.
It was a freak storm that trapped the migrants in the rugged mountains east of San Diego. At least 35 men, women and children, were caught by temperatures below freezing that claimed seven lives, reports CBS News Correspondent Jerry Bowen.
Coast Guard helicopters ferried border patrol agents in to the area to rescue the group. Some victims were air-lifted from the steep terrain; others were able to walk their way out.
The survivors said they had been walking through the mountains for three-and-a-half days, following a well-established trail into the United States.
"You know, they're from other places so they don't know what they're getting into," a border patrol agent said.
The agent said the illegal immigrants had been following a guide, who left them, they said, to finish the journey on their own. He said that their abandonment by a guide was not uncommon.
Several people were taken to San Diego hospitals with the meager belongings they had brought along to start their new lives. For one little girl, that included a familiar stuffed toy.
The immigrants were all Mexican nationals but were from different groups crossing the border illegally, said Border Patrol supervisor Roy Villareal, who was at the rescue site Friday morning. At least two were children, sisters between 5 and 7 years old who were hospitalized in good condition.
Authorities were first alerted when a rancher called the Border Patrol to say a woman, freezing from the cold, had sought aid late Thursday and said her husband and friend were lost. The husband and the friend were among those found dead later.
Authorities with the Border Patrol, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Forest Service, California Highway Patrol and San Diego County Sheriff's Department used dogs, helicopters and officers to scour the Cleveland National Forest south of Interstate 8.
Rescuers were hampered by slushy trails and low visibility due to fog.
"We have a full-scale rescue operation going on," said Bill Strassberger, spokesman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service. "Anyone available is active and out there."
It is the third time in two years that sudden storms have stranded and killed would-be migrants in these mountains just 40 miles from the sun-drenched California coast. More than 140 illegal immigrants died last year crossing from Mexico into San Diego and Imperial counties.
Since 1994, when the federal government increased patrols along the border at San Diego, migration has pushed to the more treacherous mountains and desert east of the city.
But for all their trouble and misery, those who survived the latest crossing will be sent back over the border.
Reported By Jerry Bowen