Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri updates the media Wednesday with the latest information on a search and rescue mission to find a student and a crewman who jumped from a vessel anchored near the north end of Shell Key Tuesday evening and were swept away by the current into the Gulf of Mexico. The Coast Guard suspended the search Thursday about 7:41 p.m. The Coast Guard ended the search Thursday night. PCSO transitioned to a recovery operation Friday morning.
ST. PETE BEACH – The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office announced Friday morning that the search and rescue operation for two missing swimmers who jumped off a boat near the north end of Shell Key Tuesday evening was transitioning into a recovery operation.
The Coast Guard ended the search at 7:41 p.m. Thursday after attempts to locate Jie Luo, 21, a Chinese student attending Colorado State University, and Andrew Dillman, 27, from New York, were unsuccessful.
Crews from Coast Guard Air Station Clearwater, Coast Guard Station St. Petersburg, Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission conducted 39 searches totaling 80 aircraft and surface hours and covering more than 1,577 square miles – an area larger than the state of Rhode Island.
"Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family and friends of Jie Luo and Andrew Dillman," said Capt. Holly Najarian, Coast Guard Sector St. Petersburg commander. "Suspending a search is the most difficult decision I have to make in my position, and despite our best efforts, we were unable to reunite Andrew and Jie with their families."
The search began March 14 after Coast Guard Sector St. Petersburg received a report about 6:10 p.m. that two swimmers were missing.
Luo was a part of a group of college students from Colorado State University who were in Orlando for spring break when they booked a four-hour cruise online through Florida Yacht Charters at Maximo Moorings Marina on a 71-foot Sea Ray vessel named Jaguar. The charter left the marina about 4 p.m. March 14.
Conditions were choppy, windy and rough. The captain of the vessel, Todd Davis, 50, of New Port Richey began the cruise with a 45-minute trip to Pass-a-Grille. The intent had been to cruise into the Gulf of Mexico, said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri at a press conference March 15. But because of the rough conditions, Davis decided to drop anchor near Shell Key.
The students say they asked if they could go into the water to do some snorkeling, etc. They claim that Davis didn’t tell them they couldn’t, Gualtieri said. However, Davis told deputies that he had advised them against going into the water because conditions were too rough.
Regardless, five of the students decided to jump in and then climb back aboard the vessel three times. The current was very strong and the water was choppy. The students were starting to get fatigued, Gualtieri said. The third time they jumped in, Luo had a difficult time making it back to the boat.
Gualtieri said when it became apparent that Luo was in trouble, Dillman, who was the first mate on the Jaguar, jumped in to try to help him; however, he didn’t wear a lifejacket or take any type of life-saving device with him.
Both men became caught up in the current and were carried out toward the Gulf of Mexico. The crew tried to throw them a life jacket and other life-saving devices, but due to the wind, they landed away from the swimmers. Davis pulled up the anchor, which takes some time on a large vessel, Gualtieri said, and started to look for them, but they were gone.
“We’ll have to make a decision at some point in the next day or couple of days, but experience tells us, we’ve been through this before, that we need to keep this going,” Gualtieri said Wednesday night. “It’s the right thing to do.”
Friday morning, the Sheriff’s Office announced the transition to a recovery operation. According to a press release, the operation will continue through dusk Sunday, March 19, using resources from the Sheriff’s flight and marine units, and dive team. Patrol deputies will search by land.
After Sunday, deputies will conduct extra patrols by land and by water, and the Flight Unit will conduct spot checks when available.
The incident is currently under investigation, which will be conducted by the Coast Guard.
Alcohol was found on the vessel. Gualtieri said there were coolers with champagne, beer and wine, and there had been drinking going on, but there are no official reports that the students were intoxicated. The students were scheduled to return to Colorado on Thursday.
“This is a sad, tragic situation,” Gualtieri said. “Dillman tried to be a hero and tried to rescue this kid. He tried to help at his own peril and put himself in jeopardy.”