Discuss as:

Coast Guardsman dies as suspected drug boat rams cutter

LOS ANGELES — A U.S. Coast Guardsman died and a second was wounded Sunday when they were thrown from a vessel that was rammed by a panga fishing boat under investigation for smuggling in the waters off the Southern California coast, officials said.

The Coast Guard Cutter Halibut was investigating a panga about 1 a.m. near Santa Cruz Island when it was struck by a boat suspected of smuggling drugs, officials said.

The guardsman was identified as Chief Petty Officer Terrell Horne III, 34, who was based in Marina del Rey.

During a press conference in Long Beach on Sunday, Capt. James Jenkins, the Coast Guard commander for the L.A. sector, praised Horne.

"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," Jenkins said.

Read more from NBCLosAngeles.com

Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Robert J. Papp said in a statement that the Coast Guard mourned his loss.

"Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family and friends and his shipmates aboard Coast Guard Cutter Halibut," Papp said.

The incident happened after a panga was spotted in the water near the island, the largest in the chain of Channel Islands in Santa Barbara County that sits about 20 miles southwest of Port Hueneme.

Mexican troops arrest 2 in killing of U.S. border agent

When the Coast Guard boat got closer, the panga motored toward them and struck the Coast Guard boat. The impact threw two of the four guardsmen from the boat into the water, officials said.

The other guardsman had minor injuries. He was taken to a hospital and released Sunday.

Read more US stories from NBC News

Horne died from severe head trauma.

The Coast Guard eventually stopped the fleeing panga, detained two people and seized drugs found onboard, officials said.

It's one in a string of cases in recent years — a nearly daily occurrence — in which boats are being found further north along the California coast ferrying both drugs and human cargo to evade a beefed-up law enforcement presence along the U.S.-Mexico border, according to authorities.

Editors note: In June, NBC News correspondent Mark Potter rode aboard the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Halibut as Guardsmen pursued sea-faring drug smugglers. See his report below and click on his blog post for more on that story.

Drug smugglers are now moving their product across the ocean in the dark of night, coming ashore in Southern California, and showing no signs of backing down. NBC's Mark Potter reports.