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Families of Missing Fla. Firefighters Press on in Search

The Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville

Her voice was soft but clear as she stood before massed microphones Monday at the Jacksonville Association of Fire Fighters union hall, missing Jacksonville firefighter Brian McCluney joined by her husband's mother and brother behind her.

Stating that there was "so much to say," Stephanie McCluney thanked the Coast Guard and other agencies for their "amazing" job in searching for her husband and his friend, Virginia firefighter Justin Walker, after they went missing off Port Canaveral 10 days ago.

That major search ended late Thursday, with promises from the Coast Guard that regular patrols would keep looking.

"There's no other words but thank you," she said before pausing for a breath. "From the bottom of my heart I cannot give enough gratitude. We have seen the nation come together in unity here over this. They put everything else aside and do the job that was needed to be done."

And there is still a "glimmer of hope" of finding them, Brian McLuney's mother said.

"There's still people out there looking now, including the Coast Guard and including private volunteers," Carla McCluney said. "We so appreciate everything that they are doing. This experience, although tragic and heartbreaking, is a perfect representation of the power of people coming together for a common cause. Our community and beyond our community, we have seen togetherness, generosity and kindness."

Brian McCluney, 37, is an engineer/paramedic at Jacksonville's Station 31, while Walker is a 33-year-old master technician at Station 5B in Franconia, Va. Both disappeared during a fishing trip that began Aug. 16 at Port Canaveral on McCluney's late father's 24-foot Robalo center console boat. The U.S. Coast Guard suspended the massive air and water search for the missing men at sunset Thursday after 105,000 square miles of ocean off Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas were scoured by local, state and federal agencies as well as hundreds of volunteers in boats and aircraft.

Late last week, Coast Guard Capt. Mark Vlaun and interim Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department Chief Keith Powers said they reached a point where their crews and volunteers could no longer search an area that now extends up to New England with any degree of success. Unless more evidence is found that points to where McCluney and Walker might have drifted, they can no longer commit those assets, Vlaun and Powers said.

Yet as that dedicated search ended, volunteers, including numerous JFRD and Fairfax County first responders, continued looking for the men over the weekend. That fact was recognized by McCluney's wife.

"The men and women over there poured themselves and everything they had into this, and they will continue, although it may not be active, they are more likely to find something in their regular, normal patrol patterns," she said, her voice catching slightly. "If they found one slice of evidence, then they would reactivate everything."

As for the efforts of the Jacksonville fire department, she said she could not thank them enough, saying she "truly felt embraced" by them. Stephanie McCluney said she knows firefighters "love to fix things and make things right," and they did.

Brian's disappearance came only a few weeks after his father died, the two firefighters taking the 24-foot Rogalo out on one last fishing trip in his memory. Carla McCluney gave her gratitude to everyone who searched for him and Walker, saying there was no doubt the Coast Guard and other agencies did all they they could with the best technology to find them. And the kind of man he was then was then reflected in the kind of search for him from people "from around the world" who donated planes, boats and funding, she said.

"Brian was a generous and kind man. He had charisma and he drew people in. He had that gift," she said, adding memories she heard from one of his friends last week.

"He was kind to everyone and everyone liked him," Carla McCluney said with emotion in her voice. "That is rare. Brian was loved by JFRD, loved by his wife, his children, his parents, his grandparents, aunts, uncles, even his in-laws. And he was adored by his brother Kevin."

Donations made in the past week via nonprofit Jacksonville FireFighter Charities went to help with fuel costs for searchers, hotel rooms for the families and further support, reaching more than $150,000 late last week, according to fire union president Randy Wyse. Those funds now go to help the families as other fundraisers have been held or are being done to aid in searching.

Willard's BBQ Junction raised more than $8,000 Saturday selling chicken dinners at a fundraiser luncheon at Fire Station 32, where McCluney was first stationed. And Firehouse Subs in Macclenny, Lake City, Ocala, Gainesville, St. Augustine, Fernandina and Jacksonville donated 10 percent of all sales from 5 to 9 p.m. Monday toward the missing firefighters' families.

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