Monday, September 24, 2018
Public safety

Search for two missing in gulf waters now called a recovery operation

ST. PETE BEACH — The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office shifted its search and rescue mission for a 21-year-old college student and the boat mate who tried to rescue him to a recovery late Friday morning.

The decision came the morning after the U.S. Coast Guard decided to call off its search for the missing men, who were swept away by a current in the Gulf of Mexico near Pass-A-Grille on Tuesday night.

On Friday morning the Sheriff's Office deployed three vessels and its helicopter "the Eagle" as they searched for 21-year-old Colorado State University student Jie Luo, of China, and Andrew Dillman, 27, of New York.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation commission is still assisting, said Sgt. Spencer Gross with the Sheriff's Office.

"We are hopeful we can still locate them," he said.

Deputies will search through the weekend until dusk on Sunday using their flight and marine units as well as their dive team and land patrols.

If the men still are not found by the end of the weekend, the Sheriff's Office will continue extra patrols by land and water. The flight unit will do "spot checks" when available.

The Coast Guard ended its search before 8 p.m. on Thursday.

For three days, helicopters flew above the gulf while boats scoured the waters as three to four local agencies hoped to find the two men who were on board a charter boat rented by 15 students, including Jie.

Up until Friday morning, the Coast Guard said there were 39 searches totaling 80 aircraft and surface hours that covered 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 Coast Guard Capt. Holly Najarian in a prepared statement. "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."

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Jie was on the charter boat — the Jaguar — on Tuesday with other Chinese international students from his university. The group planned a spring break trip based in Orlando, but spent $2,000 for a cruise around the gulf leaving from St. Petersburg.

When waters were too harsh to go out deep into the water, the captain of the boat, Todd Davis, anchored near Shell Key.

What happened next is unclear: The students say they asked to go in the water and Davis did not tell them it wouldn't be safe. Five students jumped from the boat into the frigid water a total of three times, deputies said. Davis told deputies he did, in fact, tell the students that going into the water wasn't safe.

After the students' last trip into the water, Jie appeared fatigued and struggled to swim back to the boat. Dillman jumped in the water in an attempt to save him.

Then the students and crew members on the 71-foot Sea Ray charter boat watched as a current carried the two men out into the gulf.

Davis said he couldn't get his anchor up quick enough to get to them.

Jie is a senior in business who planned to graduate next year with a degree in finance and real estate. Dillman works for Florida Yacht Charter and posted photos to Facebook showing off his job: days spent on big boats on Florida's beautiful waters.

"We're just keeping our hopes up," said his younger sister, Shelby Dillman, 24, earlier this week. "We're just staying positive."

Contact Sara DiNatale at [email protected] Follow @sara_dinatale.

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