After false sighting, search & prayers continue for missing boaters

Coast Guard, other agencies, civilians all searching off North Florida coast

The Coast Guard thought they had gotten a break in the search for two boaters who didn't return from a day of fishing Friday, but a sighting of a similar boat and suspicious debris Sunday afternoon turned out not to be connected to the missing Jacksonville and Virginia firefighters.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The search for two missing firefighters at sea, one from Jacksonville intensifies on day three. 

Before sunrise, Monday, several boaters were back on the water to join in the search for Brian McCluney, a firefighter and paramedic with the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department and Justin Walker, another firefighter from Virginia. Aiding in the search were fellow, off-duty firefighters who donated their time and their boats to look for their brothers. Firefighters from Flagler County also left  Ponce Inlet Monday morning to aid in the search. 

Both McCluney and Walker have been lost at sea since a fishing trip out of Port Canaveral Friday.

The Coast Guard thought they had gotten a break in the search for the two on Sunday afternoon, but a sighting of a similar boat and suspicious debris turned out not to be connected to the missing Jacksonville and Virginia firefighters.

U.S. Coast Guard Crews and partnering agencies spent the night searching and said they have covered more than 20,000 square miles in the search. 

Although the boaters launched Friday morning from Port Canaveral, the current could have pushed these boaters north into the waters off Jacksonville's shores, so firefighters and others are combing the beaches of North Florida and spent much of Sunday in private boats off the coast of Northeast Florida.

"If they're in the gulf stream, their drift becomes faster and so that extends out the amount of locations to where they could be," said Captain Jim Suber. 

Suber said with bad weather, there's a chance the boat could have been capsized.

"That white bottom of a boat is the best thing to stay with the boat hopefully that gives a better idea," he said. "If they got separated from their boat, they hopefully had life jackets on or coolers and stuff."

Suber said 2 1/2 days in, there is still a lot of hope the men are OK.

"Well you can drift, it depends on what your provisions are," he said. "If you brought plenty of water you're gonna get hungry and (hopefully) you brought enough snacks. But you know a good, healthy man can last a pretty good while in a boat just floating as long as they're out of the water and not in the water, wherein the water where hypothermia and sun and all the factors start coming into play."

The last crew to finish a search was captained by Scott Darmer, who said the crew went up past Georgia, but there was no sign of the firefighters.

Darmer said he and his crew spent 12 hours on what at times was rough water.

They even found what they thought were signs of hope.

"It just didn't pan out," Darmer said. 

McCluney's brother, Kevin, said this boating outing had sentimental value to his Justin.

"My father passed away a month ago leaving behind the boat. My brother wanted to take it out one last final quick fishing trip," Kevin McCluney said. 

McCluney's wife, Stephanie, was joined by friends and supporters in a prayer walk in central Florida as they looked for anything on the beach that would indicate a boater needing help or something they may have tossed overboard for attention.

“I am in central Florida at Jetty Park in Coach Beach and we are all walking at 4 p.m. I know my church family is (also)  walking (along) Mickler's (Landing) at 4 p.m. " We are working on getting groups at very beach up the coast," she said. "We would love to have walkers in Daytona, St. Augustine, Jacksonville Beach, Fernandina Beach, and any other local beach they are at.”

McCluney's firefighting family is joining in the search, doing all they can to find the missing boaters.

There are about 15 boats that launched from the Vilano boat ramp searching for the missing men. Firefighters that have their pilots' licenses took to the sky to search the water.

Brian McCluney and Justin Walker went fishing on Friday.

"I would almost guarantee there are some people out there that are out there right now that don't know him," said Randy Wyse, president of the Jacksonville Association of Firefighters."It's just what we do. It's a brotherhood, a sisterhood, we always try to look out for each other. There's been a call for help. We have a brother in trouble and we have a lot of people wanting to respond to that call for help."

JFRD members coordinated a search along with the Coast Guard. They were instructed to search about 15 miles off the shore of St. Augustine. The items found in the water were spotted about 50 miles off the coast of Mayport, however, the Coast Guard said the life vests and cooler were not from the missing boat.

Interim Director Fire Chief Keith Powers said firefighters in Jacksonville will continue the search until their fellow firefighters are found.

"Firefighters have a unique bond. It’s a 24 on 48 off schedule. We live together for a third of our life in those fire stations. We eat together, we laugh together (and) when something bad is going on, we cry together. When word got out the entire department we had numerous departments they’re all offering service, it’s a unique bond and it’s shared throughout the country, Powers said.

Coast Guard searches for missing boaters

Wyse said if anyone can get through this and make it out OK, it's McCluney.

"That's what we do. When firefighters are in a bad situation, they figure a way out of that. So, with Brian's experience in the fire service and military experience, (he's a) very decorated veteran, if anyone can get out of this, he can. He's always worked at some of the busiest places. Those are the kind of people always wanting to be in the action and go and do. So, he is a really fine individual, just a good family man. And we are praying for him," Wyse said.

McCluney and Walker were last seen fishing in McCluney's 24-foot center console boat. The Coast Guard was alerted at 8 p.m. Friday when they never returned to shore and weren't receiving texts or calls.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the Navy and the Brevard County Sheriff's Office are also helping with the search.

Wyse and the Jacksonville Fire Rescue Department say they will not rest until McCluney is found. 

"There's 1,600 people up here in Jacksonville praying for a good outcome and doing everything we can to help in the search and help support the family. We've had firefighters from his crew (31) down there with the family since yesterday (Saturday) morning," Wyse said.

McCluney is not just a firefighter but also a Navy veteran and has been married to his high school sweetheart for 15 years. They have two children, ages 6 and 8.

"He’s a decorated combat veteran, deployed to Iraq twice, participated in battle of Fallujah Navy corpsman. Excellent survival training, they’re both firefighters. They’re the most capable people I can imagine given the circumstances they have everything going for them," Kevin McCluney said. 

Anyone with information about the boaters or can help in the search is asked to call the Coast Guard at 904-714-7565.

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Lifetime Floridian anchors weekends and reports weekdays on issues in Nassau and Baker counties and beyond.