Coast Guard suspends search and rescue efforts for missing Fairfax firefighter

The U.S. Coast Guard suspended its active search and rescue efforts for two missing firefighters, including one from Fairfax County, Virginia, at sundown.

U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Mark Vlaun said during a Thursday noon news conference that the agency is no longer able to search a specific location with any reasonable degree of success.

Justin Walker, a master technician for Fairfax County Fire and Rescue, was last seen going on a fishing trip with his friend Brian McCluney, a member of the Jacksonville, Florida, fire department. The pair left early last Friday on McCluney’s 24-foot center console boat off Port Canaveral.

Vlaun, who has previously called the search a race against time, called the decision to suspend active search operations nearly a week after the men went missing “extremely difficult.”

“At this point, without additional information, we have simply reached a point where our computer modeling and our ability to search in a given location are no longer allowing us to search with any reasonable degree or probability of success,” Vlaun said.

Instead, Coast Guard cutters and aircraft will return to their normal patrol duties, but will continue looking for the two missing men.

“Everyone will know that we still have Brian and Justin somewhere out there, and we remain with them,” Vlaun said. “Our thoughts and prayers remain with them.”

He added, “We’re still looking for that boat. It’s just that, at this point, I’m not adding value by putting any asset in a particular location. We just have to continue to pray alongside the family that we learn something going forward that would allow us to respond again.”

justin walker and brian mcluney
The search for missing firefighters Justin Walker, right, and Brian McCluney, from Jacksonville, Florida, will end. Walker is from Fairfax County. (Courtesy Coast Guard)

The search efforts now extend from off the coast of New England to central Florida with a focus off the coasts of North and South Carolina. Previously, computer models had indicated the firefighters’ boat could have drifted there.

Chief Keith Powers with Jacksonville Fire and Rescue said his department will also be suspending active search efforts at sundown.

The families of both missing men were informed before the news conference of the decision to suspend the search.

“I just left the families right before we came out here and their heart broke,” Powers said. “And I can’t say I feel any different.”

The search for the two missing firefighters began last Friday after the two men failed to return from their fishing trip and family members couldn’t reach them on their cellphones.

The search efforts included ships and aircraft, including from the Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection, the U.S. Navy and Air Force — in addition to civilian volunteers.

The outpouring of help “allowed us to extend the search farther and broader than we otherwise could have without them,” Powers said.

The search narrowed in on an area 50 miles east of St. Augustine after McCluney’s tackle bag was found by a civilian searcher Monday night.

Vlaun called that discovery a “miraculous find,” and said if other clues are found, it would “restart” the search and rescue efforts.

At the news conference, Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Chief John Butler, who is in Florida, gave a statement, expressing appreciation for everyone who has taken part in the search efforts.

“Everyone is hoping for the best with regard to Brian and Justin. We’re also coming to a point of reality and understanding the challenges that we’re facing,” Butler told WTOP in a brief phone interview after the news conference. “The Fire and Rescue Department of Fairfax County is being strong and supporting each other, as well as Justin’s family.”

He praised the collaboration with Jacksonville Fire and Rescue.

“You know, we all wear different patches but, at the core, firefighters … rally together when there are times of challenges,” he said. “And my time down here in Jacksonsville, Florida, has proven that.”

Ron Kuley, president of the Fairfax County Professional Firefighters, who is also in Florida, said he and the other firefighters who took part in the search are saddened at the developments, but appreciative of the outpouring of support from both Jacksonville and Fairfax County communities.

“Our strength comes from being here with the families and providing whatever assistance they need also while having a role in the search and rescue activities,” he said.

WTOP’s Carlos Prieto contributed to this report.

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