'Time has really become our enemy' as search for missing boaters moves north

Volunteer boaters from Brunswick, Savannah, Charleston searched Wednesday

The search for two missing boaters is moving north.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – After searching more than 90,300 square miles over five days for two missing fishermen who never returned from a fishing trip off the coast of Central Florida, those running the operation are concerned.

"We’re in some critical times right now," Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department Chief Keith Powers said early Wednesday evening. "Time has really become our enemy and we’re really having to move forward with this. Something’s got to happen. So we’re going to continue the search, but it’s going to be moving north."

Powers announced that starting Thursday, the focus of the search would move north and the only boats that JFRD would coordinate to search would be from Savannah and Charleston.

Coast Guard Capt. Mark Vlaun said the search area has become "astronomically large," extending north as far as Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, and up to 120 miles offshore. He said with each search shift, the current takes anything drifting in the water north 12 to 20 miles and spreads it to the east and west. 

In addition to three Coast Guard cutters and three government search aircraft, local and state agencies, 35 private boats and 100 volunteers from Jacksonville, Brunswick and Savannah were out on the water Wednesday searching. More people aboard eight boats based in Charleston also joined the search.

A life vest found Wednesday about 50 miles off the coast of Savannah turned out to be not connected to these boaters.

"This is a huge and complex search and most complicated I've seen in my career," Vlaun said Wednesday. "We're all struggling. We're all hoping we can find something that would spark the ability to contract the search."

Anyone in the Savannah or Charleston areas with a boat capable of working up to 60 miles offshore is asked to contact JFRD Chief Trace Barrow at 904-813-5315 about helping Thursday. Anyone who wants to volunteer can call the JFRD command post at 904-763-9747. Donations to help fuel boats used in the search can be made at JFRD.com.

As the search moves north, South Carolina Department of Natural Resources officers, who have been searching by boat and by aircraft, ask that all recreational boaters operating off the coast of South Carolina remain vigilant and report any debris or other unusual sightings to either the Coast Guard or the department's hotline at 1-800-922-5431.

The Coast Guard will continue to search overnight.

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Firefighters, friends last heard from Friday

Brian McCluney, who works for the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department, and Justin Walker, a firefighter from Fairfax, Virginia, put out from a Port Canaveral boat ramp Friday morning, telling loved ones they'd be back by evening. 

Aaron Miller, a firefighter and paramedic from Fairfax, describes himself as Walker's best friend.

"You would give up everything in the world to get this person back," Miller said.

FAMILY PHOTOS: Brian McCluney and Justin Walker

Vlaun said the cooperation and communication of volunteers and local agencies searching 65 grids along the coastline, it freed up his three cutters to search 65-80 miles offshore and the Coast Guard, Navy and Customs and Border Protection aircraft to search beyond that.

Someone left a box of "good luck" rocks at the Mayport launch site, asking volunteers to take one with them as they head out to search Wednesday.

McCluney's wife, Stephanie, said she is thankful to all who have given their time and efforts searching for the men.

“I just cannot express the gratitude from our community. From not just Jacksonville -- up and down the coast, and nationally -- it is amazing,” McCluney said. “We feel so well supported, we still need so much more support to keep going.”

She posted on Facebook on Wednesday that she would be taking the day for prayer and worship and that she has "renewed strength and hope in my Lord and Savior." 

She said she will not lose faith or hope, and she would not be updating social media anymore Wednesday.

News4Jax reporter Jenese Harris went out on a boat with volunteers searching Tuesday for two missing firefighters.

Volunteers answer call

Vlaun said because of the cooperation and communication with these volunteers and local resources searching 65 grids along the coastline, it frees up his three cutters to search 65-80 miles offshore and the Coast Guard, Navy and Customs and Border Protection aircraft to search beyond that.

One volunteer's wife said they felt compelled to help and are praying for answers.

"When times like this occur, then we all need to pull together and do the right thing,” Lucy Bowie said. “They should keep holding out hope. They have our support. They have the support of this community. I know that. And they have the support of the greater boating community."

Jeff Armstong said he volunteered Monday in Port Canaveral, where he met McCluney’s wife. He said she inspired him to volunteer Wednesday in Jacksonville.

"Once I saw that she wasn’t giving up, I fumbled around for a day and I decided that if she’s not going to give up, I’m not going to give up," Armstrong said.

Many of the volunteers out on the water the last four days were from JFRD or neighboring fire departments. Powers said searchers who launched from a boat ramp in Mayport covered another 5,000 square miles of water on Wednesday.

One volunteer said the community support has been overwhelming and means a lot.

"We had four guys from South Carolina drove all the way, got their boat and came here yesterday and burned $300 worth of fuel yesterday and then they’re going to be back today and pull in at Brunswick tomorrow and they didn’t ask for anything -- they just wanted to help,” Jeff Basford said.

More than 100 fishermen and recreational boaters volunteered to help again Wednesday.

“I think it’s outstanding to have that many people give up their time and efforts to find these two gentleman," volunteer Patrick Sawyer said Tuesday. "It’s what the community’s about. It’s what it's supposed to be: helping people when they need it.”

Volunteers Billy Sermons and Audie Posadis used a drone to help with the search. 

"They have these high tech drones, so we went out 100 miles ... from the inlet today and launched these drones," Sermons said.

Although they didn’t find another piece of the puzzle, Sermons and Posadis said they’re grateful they could help.

"Whatever we can do to help out firefighters and police," Posadis said. "We're out there to support them."

Though crews will no longer be searching the Jacksonville area Thursday, JFRD said its command center will still be at the Mayport boat ramp.

The Coast Guard said it will have a first light search Thursday morning. During that time, they will have a conversation about what the future of the rescue will look like.

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

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The networks and America's largest newspapers are following the search for Brian McCluney, who works for the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department, and Justin Walker, a firefighter from Fairfax, Virginia.

About the Authors:

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

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