JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Almost one week into the search for two firefighters lost at sea, the man leading the large-scale operation reckoned with the prospect that the men he's looking for might not be found.
U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Mark Vlaun suspended the active search Thursday evening.
"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. "With that information and meeting with our partners and meeting with the families and the other search assets, I've made the extremely difficult decision today that we will suspend the active search tonight."
Air and boat crews spent six days fanning out to cover over 146,368 square miles — roughly the size of Montana — stretching from Florida to the Carolinas in search of Brian McCluney, a Jacksonville firefighter, and Justin Walker, a firefighter from Fairfax County, Virginia. The two friends were reported missing Friday evening when they did not return from a fishing trip out of Port Canaveral.
Searchers have been unable to find any sign of the pair since Monday when they found a tackle bag belonging to McCluney about 50 miles offshore of St. Augustine.
Without any new leads, the search area stretched from hundreds of miles off the coast of New England down the East Coast to Central Florida. Vlaun said that it's too big of an area to keep up an active patrol, even with several Coast Guard cutters, government aircraft, state and local agencies and a band of volunteers pitching in.
"When you're talking about search suspension, it is the hardest decision any Coast Guard leader makes," he said.
Vlaun said that doesn't mean authorities are giving up on McCluney and Walker. He said Coast Guard boats and aircraft would continue looking for clues and scanning the ocean for signs of the firefighters and McCluney's boat, a 24-foot center console.
"And with the judgment call to put those assets back on patrol, we give ourselves an equal if not better opportunity of maybe learning something more," he said. "If new information came forth, like with the bag or something like that, it restarts the process."
The decision to suspend the search was a tough pill to swallow, not only for the firefighters' families, but also for their fire departments. McCluney's and Walker's co-workers have been working around the clock in the hopes of bringing their friends and brothers home safe and sound. Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department Chief Keith Powers said the fire department was also scaling back its efforts.
"I just left the families right before I came out here, and they're heartbroken," Powers said. "And I can't say I feel any differently right now."
Below is a list of what we know and don't know so far about the search:
A search the size of Montana
In the hours that have ticked by since the firefighters were reported missing, the Coast Guard, other agencies and volunteers have covered over 146,368 square miles, or an area the size of Montana, in a Herculean effort that reaches from Florida up to the Carolinas. Government and private aircraft -- including a Cessna carrying Walker's wife -- have patrolled the skies for any sign of the firefighters.
Tackle bag still the only clue for rescuers
The most notable development in the days-long search has been the discovery Monday of a tackle bag belonging to McCluney. Authorities said the equipment bag was found roughly 50 miles off the shore of St. Augustine, and McCluney's wife is confident the bag is her husband's. Vlaun said the discovery at first helped pinpoint search efforts. Since then, however, no other notable items have been found.
Doctor says firefighters' health a concern
It's unclear if the firefighters are still with McCluney's boat, a 24-foot center console, which would be the best-case scenario. Even if they are, they could face health issues including sun exposure, dehydration and malnutrition, UF Health Jacksonville's Dr. Andrew Schmidt said. But more concerning is if they're in the water, which would be more dire. "Anybody exposed to water under 94 degrees after a certain amount of time will experience hypothermia," Schmidt said.
Fate of firefighters' boat a question mark
Authorities do not know what happened to the firefighters' boat. When the search began, McCluney's wife, Stephanie, speculated that a mechanical mishap was to blame, saying: "I really am confident it's mechanical failure." Vlaun said the Coast Guard has not ruled out any possibilities. Complicating matters is that the boat was not equipped with an EPIRB, which would help rescuers find them.