Family, community honor life of missing Jacksonville firefighter

Service honors life, career of 'humble servant' Brian McCluney

Tarik Minor was at the memorial service held for Brian McCluney, the firefighter who disappeared during a fishing trip in August.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Brian McCluney was a humble servant who was reserved about his faith but loud in his day-to-day contact with everyone he met, his pastor said Friday.

McCluney's family held a celebration of life Friday morning for the 38-year-old Jacksonville firefighter who disappeared while out at sea 10 weeks ago.

McCluney and Justin Walker, a firefighter friend from Virginia, went fishing out of Port Canaveral on Aug. 16 and never returned.​​​​​​​

McCluney's family was blanketed with support Friday during a ceremony that celebrated the Navy veteran's service and his career with Jacksonville Fire and Rescue.

"Brian touched a lot of people. He touched me personally. This incident changed my outlook on life, and it's because of Brian and Stephanie and that family and how they responded to a very tragic incident, and they responded in a very special way," JFRD interim Fire Chief Keith Powers said. "Brian brought honor to the patch that we get to wear. It's an honor to wear that patch and he brought honor to it."

A search of more than 100,000 square miles of ocean came up empty, but the McCluney family held on to their faith in a higher power, which was a resounding theme in Friday's celebration of life service held at North Jacksonville Baptist Church. 

"It was an amazing week that we spent with all the families and our brothers and sisters, trying to come up with a good outcome. Wish we had a better outcome," said Randy Wyse, president of the Jacksonville Association of Firefighters​​​​​​​. "But I can tell you all responded to Brian. I am truly honored to be part of you all and what you did."

WATCH: Video from JFRD gives look inside celebration of life |
GALLERY: Family photos of Brian McCluney, Justin Walker

McCluney's brother described him as a humble and brave man who loved God and his family.

Powers said McCluney's colleagues are still grieving deeply, but the strength of McCluney's wife has encouraged them all, even though McCluney's body was never found at sea. 

"It's the only time I can remember not having the closure, and the closure is a big part of the grieving process," Powers said. "But in this case, Stephanie McCluney was the strongest individual I've ever met. Her faith is unbelievable." 

Stephanie McCluney told News4Jax last month that she continues to cling to that faith as she and her children move on without any answers about what went wrong on what was supposed to be a day trip on the ocean.

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 said she hopes the story of the loss of her first-responder husband and their friend can keep his colleagues doing what they do best -- saving lives by changing the way 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," she said. "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 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.

Walker's family drove from Virginia to take part in McCluney's celebration of life service. They have not yet scheduled a service for Walker.

About the Authors:

Tarik anchors the 4, 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. weekday newscasts and reports with the I-TEAM.

Ashley Harding joined the Channel 4 news team in March 2013 and reports every weekday for The Morning Show.