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Missing boater's wife posts 'miracles happen' hours before tackle bag found

Coast Guard, other agencies, civilians search off coast for 2 firefighters

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The wife of one of two firefighters missing at sea clung to hope Monday, saying "miracles happen on Day 3! This is Day 3."

Hours later, Stephanie McCluney announced that her husband's tackle bag was found 50 nautical miles off the coast of St. Augustine. The Coast Guard confirmed a volunteer who was assisting in the search discovered the bag.

On the third day of searching for Brian McCluney, a firefighter and paramedic with the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department, and Justin Walker, another firefighter from Virginia, the U.S. Coast Guard announced that crews had covered 46,800 miles of ocean, with an estimated 108 hours of active searching.

More than 35 boaters were on the water by sunrise Monday to help search for the two men, who disappeared after leaving on a fishing trip Friday from Port Canaveral. Many of those were from JFRD or neighboring fire departments. JFRD Chief Keith Powers said searchers covered 5,000 square miles of water Monday.

"This is still absolutely a rescue mission," Powers said. "We are talking about a decorated combat veteran, a firefighter paramedic. This guy (McCluney) has the skills. He’s been raised on the water all his life."

News4Jax was on the water Monday aboard a 24-foot center console belonging to the Freedom Boat Club that is very similar to the one that's been missing since Friday. Its captain,' Burke Bell, is also optimistic the men will be found.

"These guys are well trained. They know what they are doing. We are hoping they’ve got this under control," Capt. Burke Bell said. "The Coast Guard, they’re professionals. They’ve done it before many times. Just hoping the best."

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McCluney's wife, Stephanie, has been calling for prayers throughout the search and gave those following the drama hope on Monday when she posted on her Facebook page about 2 p.m. that her husband's tackle bag had been found, and she confirmed it was his.

"I wholeheartedly believe this is a bread crumb they (threw) overboard to say, “We are here, come find us,'" Stephanie McCluney wrote. "I am standing firm on my face in prayer and that this be our Lord and savior guiding our path. Please continue to send prayers, donations to aid the search at JFRD.com."

Prayer warriors, I have confirmed this is Brian’s tackle bag. It was found off the coast of st Augustine, 50 miles out....

Posted by Stephanie Young McCluney on Monday, August 19, 2019

According to the Coast Guard, two 87-foot patrol boats searched coastal waters from the Port Canaveral area up north to Jacksonville -- and about 80 miles offshore -- on Monday Over the weekend, the search went as far north as Charleston, South Carolina.

Others, including those from First Coast Navy Fire Stations 3 and 4, scoured the beaches at Naval Station Mayport on Monday looking for anything that may have come ashore that might be connected to the missing boaters.

The find of the tackle bag allowed searchers an area to focus their search. Powers said some of the larger boats that left out of Mayport asked if they should stay through the night Monday, and he called for volunteers with boats capable of safely helping offshore to join the search on Tuesday when the weather should be even better than Monday.

Coast Guard crews will be searching overnight. JFRD will start gridding the area and giving assignments again at 7 a.m. Tuesday from Mayport boat ramp. Volunteers who have boats capable of searching between 30 and 60 miles offshore safely are asked to meet at 7 a.m. Tuesday at the Mayport boat ramp. For those who don't have a boat but still want to help, donations can be made at JFRD.com.

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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.

A Navy plane Customs and Border Protection's Air and Marine Operations aircraft joined the search Monday morning. A Coast Guard HC-130 aircraft from Clearwater was also searching. There were at least three other aircraft searching Monday.

Aiding in the search were dozens of off-duty firefighters who donated their time and their boats to look for their brothers. Flagler County firefighters on boats left Ponce Inlet Monday morning.

Dozens of boaters and fishermen volunteers also joined the search.

"Someone needs help, so we are trying to go out there and see what we can do," volunteer Joe Larsen said. "If I am broke down or capsized, I want everybody to come look for me. That’s why I am doing it."

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 Capt. Jim Suber. 

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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."

McCluney's brother, Kevin, said this outing had sentimental value.

"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. 

JFRD members coordinated a search along with the Coast Guard. They were instructed to search about 15 miles off the shore of St. Augustine. 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.

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Randy Wyse, president of the Jacksonville Association of Firefighters, 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.

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 the 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 who can help in the search is asked to call the Coast Guard at 904-714-7565.


About the Authors:

Kelly Wiley

Kelly Wiley, an award-winning investigative reporter, joined the News4Jax I-Team in June 2019.

Vic Micolucci

Lifetime Jacksonville resident anchors the 9 a.m. weekday newscast and is part of the News4Jax I-Team.