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Coast Guard: 'Race against time' to find two missing boaters, including Navy vet

Coast Guard Capt. Mark Vlaun speaks at the Mayport boat ramp Wednesday about the sixth day of searching for the missing firefighters.

FIRST COAST NEWS/TNS

By DAN SCANLAN | The Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville | Published: August 21, 2019

(Tribune News Service) — The sixth day of searching for two firefighter friends missing since a Friday fishing trip is down to 150 volunteers in 40 boats hunting in the waters from Port Canaveral and Jacksonville up to Charleston, even as far north as Cape Hatteras, according to fire department and Coast Guard officials.

After calling Wednesday's search a "race against time" to find Jacksonville firefighter Brian McCluney, 37, and Virginia firefighter Justin Walker, 33, those searchers join Coast Guard and other federal agencies still looking for the men last seen leaving a Port Canaveral boat ramp.

The Air Force, Navy and Customs and Immigration are also conducting massive search efforts along with Coast Guard planes and cutters almost 200 miles offshore from Brevard County all the way up to about 120 miles off North Carolina, Coast Guard Capt. Mark Vlaun said.

“We’re in a race against time,” Vlaun said. “That is becoming even more acute as we move forward.”

Nothing new was found Tuesday or overnight as they checked on any possible evidence of their boat that would continue floating north on the ocean currents, he said.

"The Gulf Stream we have been talking about for a couple of days is working against us and we are still dealing with a current moving 4 to 6 knots north," Vlaun said. "Some of our early search objects that were drifting from Day 1 are reaching New England, and we are still looking in areas as far south as Cape Canaveral. This has truly become an extensive search."

As for the families of McCluney, a Navy veteran, and Walker, interim Fire Chief Keith Powers said the fire unions from Jacksonville and Fairfax County, Va., have been there since the start of searching Friday.

"They have literally put their arms around both those families and provided for every one of their needs," Powers said. "I want to thank the community again. Without the community support, this would not be happening as we try to find our two brothers. Their support is invaluable and very necessary."

McCluney is assigned to Station 31 on the city's Westside. Walker is a master technician with the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department. McCluney and Walker failed to return after leaving a boat ramp in Cape Canaveral Friday morning in McCluney's late father's 24-foot-long Robolo center console boat with black top, according to the Coast Guard. The last piece of evidence found in the ocean identified as theirs was about 11 a.m. Monday when a civilian searcher found a fishing tackle bag in waters about 50 miles off St. Augustine.

While dozens more sightings of debris have been and continue to be checked on by the Coast Guard, nothing else has been found connected to the missing men despite efforts that saw 75 boats with 200 volunteers searching 12,600 square miles of ocean from Port Canaveral into Southeast Georgia Tuesday, Vlaun said. At least 11 aircraft helped as well as the Coast Guard, Navy and Customs adding four large planes and two cutters.

With no new evidence to extrapolate a direction where the missing boaters may have drifted, Vlaun said planes and cutters will still head out Wednesday afternoon and evening. The question now is how much longer dedicated assets can be sent to a search area that could soon be 250,000 square miles wide and the "likelihood of success" without another piece of evidence to help, he said.

"Based on what we learn throughout the evening, we will start having discussions about whether we can still actively search or accept another posture," Vlaun said. "... There are many challenges, one is just any person's survivability on the water. That is one of the factors we constantly evaluate. The second is the Gulf Stream tends to not only move what you are searching for, but it also spreads out the possible area of search."

Powers said the search still needs donations, as do the firefighters' families. Jacksonville FireFighter Charities set up a site to accept donations, accessible at jfrd.com.

Anyone with possible helpful information can contact the Coast Guard Sector Jacksonville Command Center at (904) 714-7558.

©2019 The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, Fla.)
Visit The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, Fla.) at www.jacksonville.com
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Jacksonville firefighter Brian McCluney (left), 37, and Virginia firefighter Justin Walker, 33.
FLORIDA TIMES-UNION/TNS

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