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Families cling to hope that longtime friends missing on Lake Tarpon will be found

TARPON SPRINGS — Every other weekend, longtime friends Willie Hightower and Willie Ragins went fishing, often returning home with coolers filled with bluegills and speckled trout.

But the pair didn't return home from a Saturday fishing trip on Lake Tarpon in Ragins' 14-foot boat.

Monday marked the second day the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office had searched without success for Hightower, 64, and Ragins, 43, both of Plant City, after their families reported them missing early Sunday.

The search will resume this morning, the Sheriff's Office said.

As boats and divers scoured the 5-mile-long lake in northern Pinellas County, the men's families tried to hold on to hope. They watched the rescue efforts while huddled together on benches at A.L. Anderson Park on the western shore of Lake Tarpon.

"I'm hoping," said Ragins' mother, Saretha Ragins. "Praying for a miracle."

On Saturday, Ragins left his house about 2 p.m. to pick up Hightower, Saretha said. About 10 p.m., Ragins' wife called him to ask how he was doing. He said he would be home in a couple of hours with two coolers containing fish.

But about midnight, when Ragins still wasn't home, Saretha was concerned. She couldn't sleep. She called his cellphone, but no one answered.

The family called the Sheriff's Office and reported him missing.

That same night, Hightower's wife, Mildred, also grew worried when her husband hadn't called. He typically called her every few hours to see how she was doing — she is partially paralyzed after suffering a stroke.

The families stood watch on Sunday until the search was called off well after dark. Rescuers that day recovered a chair, two coolers — one still containing fish — and a life jacket from the water on the north end of the lake.

By 7 a.m. Monday, about a dozen of Ragins' relatives, including aunts, uncles and sisters, arrived and waited for news.

"Tragedy comes," said Ragins' cousin, Caroline Rutledge, "we stand together, no matter what."

About an hour later, rescuers resumed their search. Two Sheriff's Office boats equipped with sonar were launched, as well as an airboat that prowled the marshy edges of the lake. Sheriff's vehicles dotted the Anderson Park boat launch parking lot near Ragins' metallic green Ford F-150.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office also arrived with boats. A recreational boater offered to search the water as well. When the gray skies cleared, the Sheriff's Office helicopter searched overhead.

Within a few hours, rescuers had recovered a red plastic gas canister and an insulated beverage container.

Still, no sign of the men or the boat. The search was called off about 5 p.m. Monday because of low visibility and was scheduled to resume this morning.

Lake Tarpon is the largest lake in Pinellas County. In most spots, it is 6 to 8 feet deep, but in some places the water can reach depths of 20 feet, deputies said. Alligators are also known to inhabit the lake.

Rescuers have faced several challenges during the search, said Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Cristen Rensel. The dark, murky water has hampered visibility. Deputies also do not know where the boat disappeared, so they are searching the entire 2,500-acre lake.

Hightower and Ragins became friends about 15 years ago when they were neighbors, their families said. Ragins works as a mechanic in Auburndale and has been married for 21 years. Hightower is retired and has been married about 18 years.

On Monday, Mildred Hightower sat in the driver's seat of a silver Dodge, the door propped open as she looked ahead at the lake and wiped tears from her red, tired eyes.

"I have hope," she said.

Then, she paused.

"I'm really going to miss him. He's all I got. Me and him."

Times staff researcher Natalie A. Watson contributed to this report. Laura C. Morel can be reached at (727)445-4157 or lmorel@tampabay.com.

Families cling to hope that longtime friends missing on Lake Tarpon will be found 12/30/13 [Last modified: Monday, December 30, 2013 10:37pm]
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