Search intensifies, expands north, for missing firefighters

Volunteer boaters needed in Brunswick, Savannah

By Ashley Harding - Reporter, Jennifer Ready - Reporter

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Wednesday will be critical in the ongoing search for two firefighters lost at sea. As crews begin their fifth day of searching, the U.S. Coast Guard says it's a race against time and the search area is getting broader.

With no major clues found on Tuesday, the search on Wednesday will stretch north, where the Gulf Stream 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 to search becomes really vast," U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Mark Vlaun said late Tuesday.

Vlaun said any clue in the water -- like the tackle bag found Monday -- would help rescuers narrow their search.

“By finding anything in this area or by finding anything at all, it allows us to kind of focus those efforts, whereas without additional clues, the area becomes really vast very fast," Vlaun said.

Dozens of boaters lined up once again at sunrise Wednesday 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.  

Volunteers with boats that can go 60 miles offshore are being asked to leave out of Mayport, Brunswick, and Savannah on Wednesday, as the search area expands north.

Someone left a box of "good luck" rocks at the Mayport launch site, asking volunteers to take one with them as they head out to search Wednesday.

McCluney's wife, Stephanie, said she is thankful to all who have given their time and efforts searching for the men.

“I just cannot express the gratitude from our community. From not just Jacksonville -- up and down the coast, and nationally -- it is amazing,” McCluney said. “We feel so well supported, we still need so much more support to keep going.”

More than 200 people, dozens of boats and 11 aircraft scoured the coastal waters of Florida and Georgia on Tuesday, looking for the two men who met years ago in the fire academy. 

McCluney and Walker were last seen heading out to sea Friday from Port Canaveral in McCluney's 24-foot center console boat but the two seasoned fishermen never came back. The Coast Guard was alerted at 8 p.m. Friday when they never returned to shore and weren't receiving texts or calls.

'Guarded optimism'

Vlaun said this has become an extraordinarily large and complex search and rescue operation.

"We're holding out guarded optimism. We are absolutely in a race against time," Vlaun said.

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

This is in addition to the 46,800 square miles of ocean searched by Monday night. According to the Coast Guard, as of Tuesday evening, the search had covered 69,000 square miles, with an estimated 182 hours of searches stretching from Brevard County to South Carolina.

"The next 24 hours are absolutely critical, and I can't put it any clearer than that," Vlaun said late Tuesday. "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, remained on the water and in the air overnight. 

RELATED: Gulf Stream makes missing boater search difficult

More flights are planned for Wednesday to find any trace of the missing firefighters. CBP agents shared videos with News4Jax, giving a glimpse of their search. They said they're using high-tech cameras and long-range radar capable of spotting movement in the water, plus debris -- even small pieces. 

One group searched by air for over five hours.

“Every time a mission is flown like this, the whole crew wants to find a positive outcome by the end of the day. And the hardest thing is to remain patient and to be hopeful that no many hours you fly, it could still come out positive,” CBP Aviation Enforcement Agent Greg Shuler said.

Volunteers answer call

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 JFRD Chief Trace Barrow at 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.

Barrow told News4Jax by FaceTime about 8:30 p.m. Tuesday that the response in just a few hours from volunteers with boats able to handle the search has been overwhelming.

"I'm getting a phone call every minute or two at least," Barrow said. "I'm getting people that are volunteering airplanes -- their time and their airplane -- to assist in the search. I'm getting people that want to come out and ride on boats as spotters, and people that are trailering their boat from all around the Southeast that want to know where they should put their boat in for us, to be able to give them an area to search. So, that's what we're doing. That was a phone call from Orlando right there ... So they're coming from all over."

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. 

Unwavering wives

Stephanie McCluney 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," Stephanie said. "And the manpower behind it, it's not manpower, it's God power. He's doing amazing things."

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.”

The firefighters' wives and their families are connected by a strong faith in God. 

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

"I am standing firm on my (faith) 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!"

Important discovery

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.

Overwhelming support

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 CBP 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."

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

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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