JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The wife of a Jacksonville firefighter missing at sea for nearly six weeks is clinging to her faith in a higher power at a time when she realizes others might turn away.
Stephanie McCluney, wife of Jacksonville Fire Rescue Department engineer Brian McCluney, sat down to talk about her husband, the massive search for him, and her faith.
Brian and a firefighter friend from Virginia, Justin Walker, went fishing on Brian father's boat on Aug. 16 and never returned. They disappeared into the sea with many unanswered questions.
Stephanie said she has held onto the Bible verse Isaiah 43:2 ever since her husband and Walker disappeared off Cape Canaveral.
When thou passes through the waters, I will be with thee;
and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee.
When thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned;
neither shall the flame kindle upon thee.
With no answers about what went wrong on what was supposed to be a daytrip on the ocean, Stephanie said God is the source of comfort for her and their two children.
"I honestly don't know if I would be able to process and handle it any other way. I don't know how to. I don't know the alternative because it would be too depressing. There's got to be hope and faith and trust in God," Stephanie said. "I would say that, six months ago, my faith was not as strong. This has brought me to much more dependency on faith and strength."
Stephanie said that she had to decide how to explain to 6-year-old Connor and 8-year-old Bryan that their father was missing, she chose honesty.
"We chose very early to tell the kids. When we had that big briefing with the Coast Guard, we chose to come home from that and tell the kids that. We still left with hope that God can perform a miracle. He doesn't need the power of the Coast Guard or the fire department. It's still in His hands," she said. "We couldn't just keep saying, 'Tomorrow is the day. Tomorrow is the day.' That was probably the hardest thing I had to do: to sit down and tell your kids that, and surrounded with great family and stuff. But at that six-day mark, when it was called, we still had great hope."
Stephanie and she and Brian have known each other since their sophomore year of high school and they started dating their senior year.
She said Brian fell in love with her quickly.
"It took me longer than him. He said he knew at prom. I wasn't quite there yet but for me, through college, I would see the man he was," she said. "He joined the military and I went to college and did dumb college things and, finally, I was, like, 'I don't know what I'm doing.' No one else compares to Brian. And he is my ruler, my benchmark for everything. I can't be without him."
Stephanie admitted that she had thought about losing her high school sweetheart before. Brian served five years with the Navy, was deployed twice and was injured, bringing home a Purple Heart (pictured, below) after his first deployment.
Then, in 2013, Brian chose another career that would put his life on the line: He became a firefighter. But Stephanie said being lost at sea was not something she could have prepared for.
"I would say, through the deployments, I knew I might get that phone call. I don't know if it helped because the circumstance is so different. There is no answer, and that is the hardest part. There's some days where I feel like he's still on shift and he's going to come home. You watch the Saturday morning cartoons and Daddy's not coming home. We are going to get up and get our day started. There are some days where it doesn't feel real and kind of feels like we are coasting," she said. "I've been through deployments. It's just a long deployment, but then it hits you in the gut and you go, 'Wow, this is the new life, my new reality. It's hard because I've known him longer than I haven't (known him)."
Now, the 37-year-old woman is living without him and raising their two kids while all three adapt to a new way of life.
Stephanie said Brian's disappearance has been especially hard for his mother, who lost her husband -- Brian's father -- just a month before Brian disappeared. Brian was taking Justin out for a final ride on his father's boat before putting it up for sale.
"I can't imagine what it's been like for (my mother-in-law)," Stephanie said. "It's been very hard for her. It seems like more than anyone can handle. She said. 'We just lost half of our family.' It's devastating. There is no other word and it's hard to process. My message would be: Don't take it for granted. It seems cliche, but we are never promised tomorrow."
Stephanie said she is hoping the story of the loss of her first-responder husband and their friend can keep the men doing what they do best -- saving lives by changing the way other boaters go out on the water.
"So there is no fault in them taking the boat out. It's just another trip. But if there is something that they can learn from -- that safety devices like EPERBs (emergency position indicating radio beacons) shouldn't be an afterthought. I would pay any amount of money right now for that every single thing on that boat should be labeled because we've gotten pictures of a life vest and there are a million orange life vests. I can't identify that. But with names you can."
Stephanie said running through the "what-if" scenarios could make anyone crazy. While she can't change the past, she said she is happy to know people in the community are already making changes and taking extra safety precautions. It's a way for her to feel like her husband is still making a difference and that all of this was not in vain.
Stephanie also said she and Walker's wife, Natasha, talk all the time and remain positive that, no matter how much time has passed, there is always hope and that, one day, they will see their husbands again in heaven.