Coast Guard continues search for boaters, including Navy vet, missing since Friday
By DAN SCANLAN | The Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville | Published: August 20, 2019
(Tribune News Service) — The search for a two firefighters missing since Friday on a fishing trip from Port Canaveral has expanded with 180 searchers scouring a 12,600-mile area of ocean off Florida and Georgia, rescue officials said Tuesday.
The U.S. Coast Guard said it has three aircraft and the same number of cutters out to "absolutely saturate that area" near where one of the missing men's fishing tackle bag was found off St. Augustine.
"I've got three aircraft over that area right now and three Coast Guard cutters, larger Coast Guard cutters that are also searching in that vicinity," Coast Guard Capt. Mark Vlaun said at a Tuesday news conference at a Mayport boat ramp. "We are continuing today and through tomorrow."
Jacksonville firefighter Brian McCluney, 37, and Virginia firefighter Justin Walker, 33, failed to return after leaving a boat ramp in Cape Canaveral on Friday morning in McCluney's late father's 24-foot-long Robolo center console boat with black top, according to the Coast Guard. Their pickup truck and trailer were seen on security camera lowering the boat into the water at the ramp.
Since the missing men are trained firefighters and McCluney a Navy veteran, it gives them a chance of survival. "We remain optimistic, but guardedly so," Vlaun said.
Interim Fire Chief Keith Powers asked Monday night for "as many boats as we can get" capable of handling the ocean 30 to 60 miles offshore to assemble Tuesday morning at the Mayport boat ramp at 4870 Ocean St. for volunteers to be given assignments. Tuesday's response filled the Mayport ramp's parking lot with boats on trailers Tuesday morning as owners pored over maps of the planned search area.
"There's more than 70 boats that are participating in this, a combination of JFRD boats, civilians and some local law enforcement and fire departments. We also have about 10 aircraft that are flying certain segments," Powers said. "Again, I want to thank the community for their support in this effort. Without them it wouldn't be possible what we are doing and I want you to please remember these two families."
Vlaun said search conditions have been favorable, although the currents make it a challenge, especially around the faster-moving Gulf Stream. He said the Coast Guard has dropped marker buoys in the current to track along with computer modeling to help with "where did they come from, where could they be."
Vlaun did confirm the recovery of a foam cooler lid in that area but did not know if it was part of the missing firefighters' gear.
Powers thanked the Coast Guard for its "Herculean effort" in the rescue mission. The agency's aircraft and ships have covered more that 50,000 square miles of ocean with more than 20 agencies together, Vlaun said.
"To give you an idea how broad and how involved, we have had Navy P-8 aircraft flying almost constantly out of NAS Jacksonville. We have had Customs and Border Protection aircraft flying out of Florida," Vlaun said. "All of which has been dedicated to a search trying to bring Brian and Justin back."
Coast Guard aircraft have been pulled in from Savannah, Ga., North Carolina, Clearwater and Miami, plus a cutter from Charleston, S.C.
McCluney is assigned to Station 31 on the city's Westside. Walker is a master technician with the Fairfax County, Va., Fire and Rescue Department.
Coast Guard officials confirm the search will continue Wednesday. Vlaun said that how much longer it goes will be his decision.
"For today we are continuing to search, and we are searching heavily based on what we learned yesterday," he said. "Each day we have to effectively take a look at what did we find the day before and do we still have a reasonable chance of success. For today that answer is yes."
Interim Fire Chief Keith Powers, joined by Coast Guard Capt. Mark Vlaun (left), addresses the media during a noon briefing Tuesday concerning the search for two missing boaters, both firefighters. They have been missing since Friday while out on a fishing trip.
BOB SELF, FLORIDA TIMES-UNION/TNS