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Missing boater's wife posts 'miracles happen' hours before tackle bag found

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

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The wife of one of two firefighters missing at sea clung to hope Monday, saying "miracles happen on Day 3! This is Day 3."

Hours later, she announced that her husband's tackle bag had been found 50 miles off the coast of St. Augustine. The Coast Guard confirmed it was sending crews to the area.

As the search continued for Brian McCluney, a firefighter and paramedic with the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department, and Justin Walker, another firefighter from Virginia, the U.S. Coast Guard announced Monday morning on social media that crews had covered 24,000 miles of ocean over the weekend.

Before sunrise Monday, dozens of boaters were back on the water to join in the search for the two men, who disappeared after leaving on a fishing trip Friday from Port Canaveral.

McCluney's wife, Stephanie, has been calling for prayers throughout the search and gave those following the drama hope on Monday when she posted on her Facebook page about 2 p.m. that her husband's tackle bag had been found, and she confirmed it was his.

"I wholeheartedly believe this is a bread crumb they (threw) overboard to say, “We are here, come find us,'" Stephanie McCluney wrote. "I am standing firm on my face in prayer and that this be our Lord and savior guiding our path. Please continue to send prayers, donations to aid the search at www.jfrd.com."

Prayer warriors, I have confirmed this is Brian’s tackle bag. It was found off the coast of st Augustine, 50 miles out....

Posted by Stephanie Young McCluney on Monday, August 19, 2019

According to the Coast Guard, two 87-foot patrol boats are searching coastal waters from the Port Canaveral area up north to Jacksonville -- and about 80 miles offshore. Over the weekend, the search went as far north as Charleston, South Carolina.

CHECKLIST: 6 items boaters should not leave shore without

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.

A Navy plane Customs and Border Protection's Air and Marine Operations aircraft joined the search Monday morning. A Coast Guard HC-130 aircraft from Clearwater is also searching.

Aiding in the search were fellow off-duty firefighters who donated their time and their boats to look for their brothers. Flagler County firefighters on boats left Ponce Inlet Monday morning.

Other boaters and fishermen are also out searching.

"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."

The Coast Guard thought they had gotten a break in the search for the two on Sunday afternoon, but a sighting of a similar boat and suspicious debris turned out not to be connected to the missing firefighters.

U.S. Coast Guard Crews and partnering agencies spent the night searching. 

Although the boaters launched Friday morning from Port Canaveral, the current could have pushed these boaters north into the waters off Jacksonville's shores, so firefighters and others are combing the beaches of North Florida and spent much of Sunday in private boats off the coast of Northeast Florida.

"If they're in the Gulf Stream, their drift becomes faster and so that extends out the amount of locations to where they could be," said Capt. Jim Suber. 

RELATED: Gulf Stream makes missing boater search difficult

Suber said with bad weather, there's a chance the boat could have been capsized.

"That white bottom of a boat is the best thing to stay with the boat hopefully that gives a better idea," he said. "If they got separated from their boat, they hopefully had life jackets on or coolers and stuff."

McCluney's brother, Kevin, said this boating outing had sentimental value.

"My father passed away a month ago, leaving behind the boat. My brother wanted to take it out one last final quick fishing trip," Kevin McCluney said. 

Stephanie McCluney was joined by friends and supporters in a prayer walk in central Florida as they looked for anything on the beach that would indicate a boater needing help or something they may have tossed overboard for attention.

“I am in central Florida at Jetty Park in Coach Beach and we are all walking at 4 p.m. I know my church family is (also) walking (along) Mickler's (Landing) at 4 p.m. We are working on getting groups at every beach up the coast," she said. "We would love to have walkers in Daytona, St. Augustine, Jacksonville Beach, Fernandina Beach, and any other local beach they are at.”

McCluney's firefighting family is joining in the search, doing all they can to find the missing boaters.

There are about 15 boats that launched from the Vilano boat ramp searching for the missing men. Firefighters who have their pilot's license took to the sky to search the water.

"I would almost guarantee there are some people out there that are out there right now that don't know him," said Randy Wyse, president of the Jacksonville Association of Firefighters. "It's just what we do. It's a brotherhood, a sisterhood, we always try to look out for each other. There's been a call for help. We have a brother in trouble and we have a lot of people wanting to respond to that call for help."

JFRD members coordinated a search along with the Coast Guard. They were instructed to search about 15 miles off the shore of St. Augustine. The items found in the water were spotted about 50 miles off the coast of Mayport, however, the Coast Guard said the life vests and cooler were not from the missing boat.

Interim Director Fire Chief Keith Powers said firefighters in Jacksonville will continue the search until their fellow firefighters are found.

"Firefighters have a unique bond. It’s a 24 on 48 off schedule. We live together for a third of our life in those fire stations. We eat together, we laugh together (and) when something bad is going on, we cry together. When word got out the entire department we had numerous departments they’re all offering service, it’s a unique bond and it’s shared throughout the country," Powers said.

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Coast Guard searches for missing boaters

Wyse said if anyone can get through this and make it out OK, it's McCluney.

"That's what we do. When firefighters are in a bad situation, they figure a way out of that. So, with Brian's experience in the fire service and military experience, (he's a) very decorated veteran, if anyone can get out of this, he can. He's always worked at some of the busiest places. Those are the kind of people always wanting to be in the action and go and do. So, he is a really fine individual, just a good family man. And we are praying for him," Wyse said.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the Navy and the Brevard County Sheriff's Office are also helping with the search.

Wyse and the Jacksonville Fire Rescue Department say they will not rest until McCluney is found. 

"There's 1,600 people up here in Jacksonville praying for a good outcome and doing everything we can to help in the search and help support the family. We've had firefighters from his crew (31) down there with the family since yesterday (Saturday) morning," Wyse said.

McCluney is not just a firefighter but also a Navy veteran and has been married to his high school sweetheart for 15 years. They have two children, ages 6 and 8.

"He’s a decorated combat veteran, deployed to Iraq twice, participated in the battle of Fallujah, Navy corpsman. Excellent survival training. They’re both firefighters. They’re the most capable people I can imagine. Given the circumstances, they have everything going for them," Kevin 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.


About the Authors:

Zachery Lashway

An Emmy-nominated TV reporter and weekend anchor.

Kelly Wiley

Kelly Wiley, an award-winning investigative reporter, joined the News4Jax I-Team in June 2019.

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