Missing firefighters' friends react as search scales back

Coast Guard search covered 146,000 square miles offshore – the size of Montana

Friday was a sobering day for friends and fellow firefighters. It marked one week after firefighters Brian McCluney and Justin Walker were last seen.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Friday was a sobering day for friends and fellow firefighters. It marked one week after firefighters Brian McCluney and Justin Walker were last seen.

The two friends, who met at the fire academy in Central Florida, launched McCluney's 24-foot center console boat out of Port Canaveral for a fishing trip and never returned

After six days of looking for them, Coast Guard suspended its active search Thursday evening. It was a tough pill to swallow for the families and friends of the missing men.

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"There's no end to what that guy would do if that was me," said Fairfax County firefighter Aaron Miller, who was one of Walker's closest friends over the past decade.

The two met at fire school in Indian River County, Miller said. They both got jobs in the Washington, D.C., area after training and worked alongside each other. 

Miller chuckled when he thought about better times, like how Walker was there when Miller proposed to his wife. But the reality that his friend might not be found set in Friday.

"He's the ultimate friend, man," an emotional Miller said of Walker. "He's the guy that's going to give you his everything -- his max effort and then some. He's a wall breaker."

Miller said he'll be forever grateful for the exhaustive effort people put forth in the hopes of finding his friend. "I am blown away from the support that my union and fire department have offered," he said.

BY THE NUMBERS: Massive search effort for firefighters

BY THE NUMBERS

It was a massive operation, something crews said they'd never seen in North Florida before.

The U.S. Coast Guard, which led the search, used cutters, planes and helicopters from Mayport, Brunswick, Savannah, Charleston, Elizabeth City, Port Canaveral, Clearwater, and Miami.

They got help from other government agencies that included the Air Force, Navy, U.S. Marshals, and Customs and Border Protection. Even more resources came from local agencies including Jacksonville Fire & Rescue, Jacksonville Sheriff's Office, St. Johns County Sheriff's Office, St. Augustine Fire & Rescue, Brevard County Sheriff's Office, and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

The numbers are staggering, not to mention the hundreds of volunteers on boats and in small planes who volunteered their own time and money to search up and down the coast. According to the Coast Guard, the search covered 146,000 square miles, an area the size of the state of Montana.

Coast Guard Capt. Mark Vlaun told News4Jax that just because the search has been suspended does not mean that crews are not still looking. He said Coast Guard resources are still in the water and the air on patrol, ready to react if anything develops.

A reward for the safe return of the boaters, from private companies, has now reached $70,000.

Added fellow Fairfax County firefighter Rob Blasetti: "It's so overwhelming the information you get and how big of a scope this rescue has become."

Blasetti and Miller have been in Florida since learning the two men were reported missing. Their focus now is on supporting Walker's family.

"We want to make sure that financially they're set up for both families," Blasetti said.

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Ron Kuley, president of the Fairfax County Professional Firefighters, spent the week working alongside his local counterparts, like Jacksonville Association of Firefighters President Randy Wyse.

"We are here to make sure that all their needs are met," Kuley said. "That's what's next. And for all of us to rely on each other."

At Fire Station 31 here in Jacksonville, Brian McCluney's team was trying to cope with the disappearance of a man they've come to know as a brother, someone they can always count on.

"We have people here at this station who are having a really hard time with this," said Chief Patrick Gouin, McCluney's supervisor. "There's a lot of guys here who are emotionally invested with Brian."

As anyone in the field knows, the fire service is a family. Now two departments are forever joined as one, and members of both now said they're focused on supporting the men's families.

"That's what they deserve and that's what we're going to give them," Miller added.

Walker's wife, Natasha, remained in Jacksonville Friday. She said she hasn't given up yet. McCluney's wife, Stephanie, is asking for prayers. Both said they are taking the situation day by day. 


About the Author:

Lifetime Jacksonville resident anchors the 8 and 9 a.m. weekday newscasts and is part of the News4Jax I-Team.