Missing boaters from Florida: What we know a week after they disappeared

Brian McCluney, Justin Walker missing since Aug. 16

By Jennifer Sangalang, J.D. Gallop, Corey Arwood and Cheryl McCloud, Florida Today

ORLANDO, Fla. - Where are they?

Justin Walker and Brian McCluney, two off-duty firefighters, went missing after a fishing trip Aug. 16, 2019, off Port Canaveral. Here’s what we know one week after their disappearance.

ABOUT THE MEN

Brian McCluney

McCluney, 38, is a Jacksonville firefighter who was born at Health First Cape Canaveral Hospital, according to News 6 partner Florida Today. He grew up in Cocoa. McCluney played football at Merritt Island High School before graduating in 2000 and eventually joined the Navy. He did two tours of duty in Iraq and was awarded a Purple Heart when he was struck by a piece of shrapnel overseas, according to his mother, Carla McCluney.

[PREVIOUS: Coast Guard suspends search for missing boaters, families 'not giving up'3 Florida businesses offer $30,000 to whoever finds missing boaters]

The lifetime fisherman and Navy veteran is married to Stephanie McCluney, Florida Today reported. He works at the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department.

Justin Walker

Walker, 33, is a firefighter from Fairfax, Virginia, who grew up in Vero Beach. He graduated from Indian River Charter High School in 2004 and had been back home in Vero Beach visiting family for his sister's birthday just two days before. Walker moved to Fairfax County, Virginia, with his wife Natasha of Orlando about 2011, where he joined the Fairfax County Fire Department.

Both men had family and friends in Brevard, Indian River and St. Lucie counties awaiting their return that Friday night.

ABOUT THE SEARCH

The search began after McCluney and Walker were reported missing at 6 p.m. Aug. 16. The pair had left for a short fishing trip about 11 a.m. from Port Canaveral.

Family members have combed beaches — there was a beach walk Aug. 18 — searching for any signs from the 24-foot Robalo boat that was used for the leisure trip in the fish-rich waters of the 8A Reef about 30 miles to the east of Brevard County. 

The Jacksonville Fire Department where McCluney works had been heavily involved in the search, assisting with organizing a 36-boat rescue operation off the coast in a bid to find the pair.

The U.S. Coast Guard, Navy, and Customs and Border Protection, have been involved in the search by sea and air. The FBI also offered assistance along with various local agencies. Coast Guard officials said there were no radio communications or GPS pings from the boat.

One hopeful sign, according to McCluney's wife, was a blue tackle bag found Aug. 19 off the coast of St. Augustine, about 50 miles from the shoreline.

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The Coast Guard continued its vigorous search effort, sending ships and planes from North Carolina and Georgia to Miami to find the two boaters. Officials suspended their search at sundown Aug. 22, according to Capt. Mark Vlaun, commander of the Coast Guard Sector in Jacksonville. He said time and the Gulf Stream current were working against rescuers.

The massive search lasted six full days and covered over 105,000 miles when Coast Guard officials made the decision. For those curious, the 105,000-mile search area is roughly the size of Colorado.

HOW TO HELP

Businesses offer rewards

• Three businesses offered a reward of $30,000 to anyone who finds McCluney and Walker, according to Florida Today.

First Coast News reports Palm Beach Valley Outdoor Bar & Grill in Ponte Vedra Beach, International Marine in Boynton Beach and 1-800-BOARDUP in Jacksonville Beach have each put up $10,000 toward the reward.

There’s a GoFundMe

Created on Aug. 19, the crowdsourcing fundraiser, "Help us find the missing firefighters at sea," aims to raise $2,000. As of Aug. 23, it was just shy of its goal. Garrett Shurling is listed as the organizer of the online fundraiser.

The description: "We’ve heard God’s clear call to come and assist in the rescue of the two men lost at sea since Friday. We will use the funds for fuel, food, and lodging. Anything extra will be donated to the families."

To help, visit gofundme.com/f/help-us-search-for-the-missing-firefighters-at-sea.

To donate

  • Money is being raised for the pair through Jacksonville Firefighter Charities. According to jfrd.com — a notice reads, “Help find them!” A link then sends people to clear-give.com.
  • Family and friends seek donations to help rent private planes to continue the search.
  • If you have a boat and can donate your time and efforts in the search, contact JFRD. According to a Facebook group about the missing firefighters, "If you are offering any planes or boats please contact the Jacksonville Coast Guard at 904-714-7565." However, that message was written before the search was suspended by the Coast Guard.
  • A fundraiser is planned for 3 to 7 p.m. Aug. 23 at Sonny's BBQ, 150 Sheriff Drive, Melbourne. Joe Stagliano, one of the store owners, wants to raise money for the families of Brian McCluney and Justin Walker, "just to do something for them."

SOCIAL MEDIA

Readers following the story have either searched or used the hashtag #bringthemhome on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram for updates.

On Facebook

The firefighters' wives have posted messages addressed to "prayer warriors," hoping their husbands will be found.

Natasha Walker posted on Facebook on Aug. 20: "Anybody and everybody from the coast of Georgia to South Carolina please help us. We need boats on the water. All the way out to the Gulf stream. Please we can get your vessel filled with fuel and supplies. Please please please. Also if you could put OK on the top of your boat so that we can use the time searching effectively."

There's also a "Bring Justin and Brian home" Facebook group, that, as of Aug. 23, has 17,500 members. Organizers regularly update the group with videos, stories from the media and ways to help. Facebook shows the organizer as Aaron Miller, according to Florida Today.

Here's the description of the page: "On Friday, August 16, 2019, Justin Walker & Brian McCluney set out on a fishing from 300 Christopher Columbus boat ramp, near Port Canaveral, Florida. They were in a 24-foot center console boat headed toward "*A" reef. They were reported missing Friday evening when they did not return as expected. Justin is a member of the Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department and Fairfax County Professional Firefighters & Paramedics — IAFF Local 2068. Brian McCluney is a member of Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department and The Jacksonville Association of FIrefighters — IAFF Local 122. As of 0800hrs on August 19, 2019, the Coast Guard reports that they have covered 24,000 miles of ocean."

Here's a note from one of the admins: "If anyone is offering logistical assets (SAT phones, drones, physical tech) please DM Jennifer Hassett. If you are offering any planes or boats please contact the Jacksonville Coast Guard. 904-714-7565. Please refrain from in-boxing the other admins as they are fulfilling other essential roles and cannot answer messages in a timely manner. EDIT: There have been offers of lodging in Charlston, SC for those volunteering in the search efforts. We a spot for four people. Please reach out to Jennifer Hassett."

To join, visit facebook.com/groups/bringjustinandbrianhome.

On Twitter

Thousands are using #bringthemhome, sharing news reports and updates, possible clues and prayers. Click here for the direct link to the hashtag.

On Instagram

Like Twitter, #bringthemhome is being used for updates on Walker and McCluney. While the Instagram tag's not solely about the missing firefighters, several posts in the past few days reference the pair. As of Aug. 23, there are almost 20,800 posts for that tag.

On Aug. 20, @stephaniemccluneypilates, McCluney's wife, posted a photo of her husband's found bag with this message: "Prayer warriors, I have confirmed this is Brian’s tackle bag. It was found off the coast of st Augustine, 50 miles out. CG is sending assets. I wholeheartedly believe this is a bread crumb they through overboard to say “we are here, come find us” 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. #bringthemhome#findbrian #findjustin"

Click here for the direct link to the #bringthemhome hashtag.

 

Florida Today's Tyler Vazquez also contributed to this report.

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