The search for two firefighters lost at sea has gripped our News4Jax audience since the pair failed to return Friday night from a fishing trip out of Port Canaveral.
One of the missing men, Brian McCluney, works for the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department.
My husband, Will, does too, so covering this story is personal for me.
Although Will and I did not know the McCluneys before this incident, if you're in the department, you're family. It's an automatic bond.
I've spoken with Brian's wife, Stephanie, over the phone since I first started covering the story Saturday night, but I got to meet her in person Tuesday during a prayer vigil put on by the Fire Wives Organization.
No media was allowed in, but I am a part of the organization and was there -- without a camera or microphone -- not as a news reporter but as a wife. I wanted to support both families in their time of need.
When I saw Stephanie walk in, my heart ached for her. I just want this to be over for her and for them all -- with the miraculous happy ending we all so desperately want.
We sang a song, hugged each other and prayed for the return of the men. Their families were recognized and honored.
Virginia firefighter Justin Walker's family was also at the vigil, except for his wife, Natasha, who was out flying with a search plane. (I totally understand her need to be out doing something. That's how I'm wired, too.)
Before the vigil, I met Justin's sister, Jessica, who was staying positive. She's a sweet woman with a special love for her older brother.
During the vigil, Brian's parents and brother were at the table next to me, crying and loving on each other.
When we were dismissed to get dinner, I got to meet Stephanie. She's a tiny, upbeat, beautiful, faith-filled woman who is holding onto hope tightly with both hands.
As her faith in God shines through in this unimaginable crisis, I wonder to myself if I could keep it together as well as she has. But then, when you have children, there isn't much choice.
I gave Stephanie a big hug and shared some words of encouragement.
As a reporter, the best I can do for these families -- besides my heartfelt prayers -- is to keep telling their story. Typically, to get through these types of stories, we block out our feelings to remain professional. But this one is hitting so close to home.
My husband, Will, is also a firefighter who loves to fish offshore, just like Brian and Justin. They seem so alike.
Even though there was no prior relationship, I've been emotionally drained covering this story. I've tossed and turned, unable to sleep, and even dreamt about it.
When I first heard what was going on Saturday, I reached out to Stephanie over the phone. At the time, the men had only been missing for hours -- not days. We laughed and talked, and things were positive. That powerful faith in God was already keeping her strong.
We were both just waiting for the news that they were found -- that we were all worrying for nothing.
Then Sunday rolled around, and we covered a prayer walk as the worries grew.
Stephanie texted me Monday to say there would be another prayer walk. And then we caught a break when her husband's tackle bag was found off the coast of St. Augustine!
Stephanie wholeheartedly believed it was a good sign -- a breadcrumb, if you will. We were all clinging to that notion.
Then Tuesday came -- the fourth day of the search.
My husband went out on his friend, Walker's, boat to search with his firefighter buddy, Austin. They launched out of Vilano Beach and ended up searching all day, along with about 200 other firefighters. Will had tried to go out the day before but couldn't get out on a boat.
Just being a part of this search means everything to the firefighters. They will do anything for each other, dropping everything to help.
I called Stephanie on Tuesday morning to check in, and she sounded different. She was still strong, but I could hear it in her voice. I knew. I understood the worry.
She was packing her bags to come back up to Jacksonville from Cape Canaveral. After she made an appearance at the command center in Mayport, she came to that private prayer vigil put on by the Fire Wives group, where we met up.
Today -- Day 5 -- the search expanded north into Georgia.
As we have every day since Brian and Justin went missing, we are praying and hoping for an answer today. Praying the guys are found safe.
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