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After 'extremely difficult' decision, active search for missing firefighters ends at sundown

Crews & volunteers searched more than 146,368 square miles for 2 boaters

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Six days after two firefighters went to sea for a day of fishing and never returned, the U.S. Coast Guard decided Thursday would be the last of active searching.

More than 146,368 square miles, an area about the size of Montana, were searched over 281 hours, the Coast Guard said.

Capt. Mark Vlaun called the decision "extremely difficult" and said Coast Guard assets will continue to work off the coast.

"At this point, without additional information, we have simply reached a point where our computer modeling and our ability to search in a given location are no longer allowing us to search with any reasonable probability of success," Vlaun said. 

Vlaun said before making this decision public, he and the core of the people coordinating the search all week met with the families of Brian McCluney, a 37-year-old JFRD paramedic, and Justin Walker, a 33-year-old firefighter from Fairfax, Virginia. The search team outlined everything the Coast Guard and others had done to find their loved ones and answered any questions they had.

“When you're talking about search suspension, it is the hardest decision any Coast Guard leader makes, unquestionably," Vlaun said. But he also said, "When we suspend a search, we never stop operating. Everyone will know that we still have Brian and Justin somewhere out there. Our thoughts and prayers, of course, remain with Justin, Brian and their families."

JFRD Chief Keith Powers was part of that meeting with the families.

“It is unimaginable. Obviously, they're heartbroken. They're going through a tough time," Powers said. "I know we've asked a lot out of the community, and I'll ask one more thing: Keep those families in your thoughts and prayers because they are going through an extremely tough time right now."

Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry was also at a loss for words after meeting with the firefighters' families

"They're hopeful and they know people are working hard. As I shared with both of them, I don't know the words even to express. What do you say? Except to say we're praying for you," he said.
The JFRD command center at the Mayport boat ramp was taken down after sundown.

WATCH: Active search for missing firefighters ends at sundown |
Complete noon briefing by Capt. Vlaun and Chief Powers

Up until sundown...

Volunteers helping with the search were not ready to give up when they heard the Coast Guard's announcement.

It came as boaters left from Savannah and Charleston on Thursday morning.

"We had three big sport fishers. They all ran more than 150 miles out. They are all currently out right now," Chad Walton in Charleston told News4Jax. "Until the sun goes down tonight, we are hoping to find something."

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.​​​​​​

READ: Wives lean on faith to stay strong
CHECKLIST: 6 items boaters should not leave shore without
WATCH: Searchers racing against the clock to find boaters
READ: Search for missing firemen hits close to home
FAMILY PHOTOS: Brian McCluney and Justin Walker​​​​

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."

Another 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.

Vlaun said that by Thursday night, the potential search area would have extended to water off New England.

“In my 25-year career, I have never seen a more comprehensive or a larger search effort for the area and for the time duration that we ran," he said. "This was an all-hands-on-deck evolution. We could not have put more into this than we did."

With so many volunteer boaters vowing to still keep searching on their own for the missing firefighters, Coast Guard offers a small semblance of hope.

"We will always continue to look for additional clues," Vlaun said. "The entire Coast Guard system is aware we are looking for the boat. At this point, we just have to continue to pray alongside the family that we learn something going forward."

Donations to help with fuel and other costs of the boats volunteered to help with the search can still be made at JFRD.com. The Strength & Honor Motorcycle Club, which Walker is a member of, has started a fundraiser for a private search,

Anyone with information about the boaters is asked to call the Coast Guard at 904-714-7565.


About the Authors:

Vic Micolucci

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

Kelly Wiley

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