Brunswick, Savannah boat owners needed in search for missing firefighters

Coast Guard, other agencies, volunteers search off coast for 2 firefighters

By Kelly Wiley - I-TEAM reporter, Vic Micolucci - I-TEAM reporter, anchor, Jenese Harris - Reporter/anchor

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - More than 200 people, dozens of boats and 11 aircraft scoured the coastal waters of Florida and Georgia on Tuesday, searching for two friends who set out Friday for a day of fishing and never returned.

"We're now in the fifth day of what has become an extraordinarily large and complex search and rescue operation," U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Mark Vlaun said late Tuesday. "We're holding out guarded optimism. We are absolutely in a race against time."

Dozens of boaters lined up at sunrise Tuesday to begin another day searching for Brian McCluney, who works for the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department, and Justin Walker, a firefighter from Fairfax, Virginia. The men met years ago in the fire academy. 

Vlaun said 12,600 square miles of ocean from Jacksonville north to Savannah was covered Tuesday by Coast Guard, Customs and Board Patrol and Navy aircraft and with three cutters. State and local agencies boats along with private boats and aircraft were also searching coastal waters.

By Tuesday evening, the search had covered 69,000 square miles, with an estimated 182 hours of searching.

The focus will shift even more into Georgia waters Wednesday, with those coordinating the massive rescue effort asking for volunteers from Brunswick to Savannah to join the effort.

JFRD Chief Keith Powers asked for anyone in the Brunswick and Savannah areas with boats capable of operating 60 miles offshore who can help on Wednesday to call 904-813-5315 to coordinate. Other volunteers are asked to call 904-763-9747, as crews will be going out again Wednesday morning from the Mayport boat ramp. Donations to help fuel boats used in the search can be made at JFRD.com.

"The next 24 hours are critical," Vlaun said. "We are going to continue to throw everything we have at this until we reach a point where we know we can’t be successful.”

Some of the search crews, including the Coast Guard, will remain on the water and in the air overnight and Wednesday focus will move north, where the current would take a stranded boat or anyone in the water.

"The biggest challenge we have is the current. It really expands our search zone. Without additional clues, the area search becomes really vast," Vlaun said.

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Stephanie McCluney, wife of the missing JFRD firefighter, spoke about the tremendous support they have received before entering a private vigil Tuesday evening.

"It brings me such renewed strength to go down there and see the operation itself, to see what exactly they're doing," Stepanie said. "And the manpower behind it, it's not manpower, it's God power. He's doing amazing things."

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Natasha Walker, wife of the Virginia firefighter, boarded a small plane to help in Tuesday's search

“I need to be up there, feeling like I’m searching, too," she said. "We’ve been following everybody’s plan. I’m frustrated with the results. Going to bed at night, feeling guilty, going to sleep or eating, because I know our husbands are out there.”

Much of Tuesday's search activity began about 50 nautical miles east of St. Augustine, near where McCluney's tackle bag was found Monday afternoon.

"It was really surreal," said Garrett Shurling, the Savannah boater who found the bag. "You know, we ran so far out into the ocean yesterday. To think of the chances of intersecting with that bag and it actually being Brian's is just amazing."

Stephanie McCluney posted on her Facebook page that it definitely belonged to her husband and she sees it a sign.

"I wholeheartedly believe this is a bread crumb they (threw) overboard to say, “We are here, come find us."

While 24 other items of marine debris were found, none of it could be connected to the missing boaters.

McCluney and Walker were last seen fishing in McCluney's 24-foot center console boat. The Coast Guard was alerted at 8 p.m. Friday when they never returned to shore and weren't receiving texts or calls.

According to the Coast Guard, one of its HC-130 search planes and two Customs and Border Patrol C-130 planes are in the search and two 87-foot patrol boats and a fast response cutter remain on scene. 

Many of the volunteers out on the water the last three days were from JFRD or neighboring fire departments. Powers said searchers who launched from a boat ramp in Mayport covered 5,000 square miles of water Monday.

JFRD was coordinating a grid search by "as many boats as we can get" leaving from Mayport. Volunteers who have boats capable of searching between 30 and 60 miles offshore safely join the effort Tuesday. For those who don't have a boat or go to sea, they can still help by donating to offset the cost of fuel and other supplies for those who are searching by visiting JFRD.com.

Unwavering wives

Two firefighters who met while attending a fire academy in South Florida. Their wives and their families are also connected by a strong faith in God. 

"The Lord will put them in our path," Natasha Walker said.

"I am standing firm on my face in prayer and that this be our Lord and savior guiding our path," Stephanie McCluney posted on Facebook after her husband's tackle bag was found. 

Stephanie told Fox News on Tuesday that her husband saved lives as a corpsman serving in Iraq and now he needs help. 

“We need to bring him home so he can be with his family just they are with theirs,” she said.

Natasha posted online that anyone on the water in the area with a similar boat with a black T-top should mark the word "OK" with red tape on the roof so search aircraft won't take valuable time to make sure it's not the missing boat. She asked that people share her message to others "because we are finding out many on the coast still have not heard of this story at all!"

She began a personal search for her husband and McCluney on Tuesday as she boarded a small Cessna search plane with a volunteer from Central Florida.

“I need to be up there, feeling like I’m searching, too. We’ve been following everybody’s plan. I’m frustrated with the results. Going to bed at night, feeling guilty going to sleep or eating because I know our husbands are out there not doing that," Natasha said.

Natasha was joined by several other private planes as well as Coast Guard planes from Sarasota, helicopters from Savannah and a Customs and Border Protection planes from Jacksonville.

The Coast Guard and CPB aircraft are specialized for aerial search with some of the best radar and cameras in the world -- trying to use technology to save lives.

"The maritime radar will sweep 360 degrees underneath the aircraft," CPB pilot Luke Moore said. "And it will locate anything that’s floating or moving in the sea. It can detect those things."

CPB was also sending a P-3 plane and a go-fast boat to join the search.

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More than 100 fishermen and recreational boaters volunteered to help Tuesday.

“I think it’s outstanding to have that many people give up their time and efforts to find this two gentleman," volunteer Patrick Sawyer said Tuesday. "It’s what the community’s about. It’s what it's supposed to be: helping people when they need it.”

"Someone needs help, so we are trying to go out there and see what we can do," volunteer Joe Larsen said. "If I am broke down or capsized, I want everybody to come look for me. That’s why I am doing it."

TJ Mundy, another volunteer, shared the same sentiment Tuesday morning as he geared up to head out on the water.

“I was very fortunate I was able to get a lot of donations from friends and family to help cover the fuel costs," Mundy said. "It’s just important to be available as a fisherman and try to pay it forward in case anything ever happened to me."

Nassau County firefighters and two boats from the Nassau County Sheriff's Office also joined in the search Tuesday. They focused on a specific grid spanning 40 to 60 miles out from Peters Point Park to Cumberland.

"The people out there, in the boats, in the planes -- I cannot forget about them. Thank you," Stephanie McCluney said.

Anyone with information about the boaters or who can help in the search is asked to call the Coast Guard at 904-714-7565.

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