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Rescuers desperate for leads in search for firefighters lost at sea

'There are many challenges. One of them is just the survivability on water.'

U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Brian Vlaun speakswith media Wednesday about the search for two firefighters missing at sea after failing to return from an Aug. 16fishing trip.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Authorities acknowledged Wednesday that the window to find two missing firefighters alive is closing, despite expressing optimism about the outcome of the search.

It's been five days since the massive search began, and crews have not found any clues about the firefighters’ fate since Monday’s discovery of a tackle bag believed to belong to Brian McCluney, one of the boaters, Coast Guard Capt. Brian Vlaun told reporters at a Wednesday news conference.

“We did not find anything yesterday afternoon or overnight,” Vlaun said. “We are checking in to a couple of debris fields and are trying to relocate to some areas where we have gotten some notifications of debris. But we haven’t identified anything that led us to believe we have the right target.”

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Without new information, authorities cannot focus their search for McCluney, a Jacksonville firefighter, and Justin Walker, a firefighter from Fairfax County, Virginia. They were reported missing Friday night when they did not return from a fishing trip after setting out from Brevard County earlier that day.

Despite a major search effort involving dozens of boats and aircraft that has covered 90,286 square miles stretching from Florida to the Carolinas, rescuers have so far come up emptyhanded.

“That’s the race we are in,” Vlaun said when asked about the urgency of the search effort. “The area is literally becoming so large and that’s why each individual clue becomes so important. If we can’t narrow that down, we are only in an expanding scenario and it becomes an incredibly large ocean.”

But a lack of new leads is far from the only obstacle getting in the way of the search. Searchers also face a number of other challenges, including the Gulf Stream, other debris in the water and whether or not the firefighters can hold on without food and water long enough for rescuers to arrive.

“We are still dealing with a current that’s moving 4 to 6 knots northerly, which means every time I put a search effort out, the water has moved between 12 to 20 miles from when they get there to when they depart,” he said. “Some of the things that were drifting from Day 1 are now reaching New England.”

Vlaun said pollution isn’t helping either. 

“The challenge…is there is a lot of trash in the ocean. We are picking up trash that could be 3 to 4 months old, we are finding things with growth on it,” he said. “Up until now, apart from the bag, we have picked up debris but nothing that would correlate to this event.”

It’s up to Vlaun to make the call about when to scale back or suspend the active search. He demurred when asked how long the search would keep going, saying that’s a decision that comes up daily. He said the answer to that question depends on the likelihood of success.

“The last known object is approaching two days old, the fish bag,” he said. “Because of that, our drift area is expanding in every direction, so we are still engaged today and what we learn this evening will be if we need to assess a new posture.”