The search continues for two firefighters — including one from Fairfax County, Virginia — who have gone missing after a fishing trip off the Florida coast.
Justin Walker, a master technician for Fairfax County Fire and Rescue, was last seen going on the trip with his friend Brian McCluney, a member of the fire department in Jacksonville, Florida.
The pair launched early Friday on McCluney’s 24-foot center console boat off a ramp in Port Canaveral. By late Friday night, family members contacted the U.S. Coast Guard and said the two did not return as planned and could not be reached by phone.
On Monday evening, Chief Keith Powers with Jacksonville Fire and Rescue said in an update that a tackle bag was found 50 miles east of St. Augustine, near Jacksonville, and family members had identified the bag as belonging to McCluney. The bag was found by a civilian searcher.
Search efforts are being directed into that area, Powers said, and it’s likely that some boats may be offshore all night.
“We’re going to ramp up our search in the area where that bag was found,” Powers said. He asked for interested volunteers with a boat, capable of working 30-60 miles off shore, to help with search efforts Tuesday morning.
Know of anyone in, or close by, Jacksonville area who has an appropriate boat? Please let them know. Also please SHARE regardless as it will help get word out! #BringThemHome @JFRDJAX #FCFRD https://t.co/XSqw9WXi3D
— Fairfax Fire/Rescue (@ffxfirerescue) August 19, 2019
“We’re going to find these guys,” Powers said. “We finally started zeroing in a little bit today. We’re going to find them. Absolutely, it’s a rescue mission.”
Powers added that 37 boats and around 138 people were out searching, including volunteers and firefighters. A search by air involved six aircraft, he said.
The nonprofit Jacksonville Firefighter Charities has set up an online fundraiser for the search effort and to help the firefighters’ families.
Multiple local, state and federal agencies joined the search effort, including the U.S. Navy.
Earlier, Jacksonville Fire and Rescue had sent 50 firefighters out on 11 boats. Powers told local station WJXT that other fire departments across that area have been stepping up. “That’s just a unique bond that only firefighters share, and it’s shared throughout the country. You hear the cliché that it’s a second family, but it really is a second family,” he said.
On Sunday, the Coast Guard said the search had covered more than 20,000 square miles so far, extending north of Jacksonville and 80 miles off shore.
Also Sunday, the Coast Guard investigated a debris field that was spotted about 50 miles off the coast of St. Augustine. The agency later said on Twitter that it was a false alarm.
“No boats found and floating items turned out to be other debris not related to the boaters,” the Coast Guard said. “Crews are expanding search patterns in the area.”
The search for Walker is on the minds of firefighters in Virginia.
Fairfax County Fire and Rescue said in a statement Monday afternoon that the department is in contact with Walker’s family and Jacksonville Fire and Rescue.
“We remain optimistic that they will be found,” the department said. “We are working closely with authorities in Florida to provide assistance and coordinate any resource needs. Please keep these firefighters, their families and friends in your thoughts and prayers.”
Fairfax County Professional Firefighters & Paramedics President Ron Kuley said that his organization is cautiously optimistic. “It gets a little emotional thinking about this. It’s a very difficult situation, but we’re hoping for a positive outcome,” he said.
Kuley thanked all the people who are searching for the men, saying they have been doing an “extraordinary” job.
“Our brothers out there are alive and they’re going to be found,” Kuley said. “We just need a lot of positive energy and prayers.”
WTOP’s Abigail Constantino and Teta Alim contributed to this report.
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