CLEARWATER — James Poindexter was wading in the chest-high waters of the Intracoastal Waterway on Labor Day, walking atop sandbars that border a small beach on the eastern shore of Sand Key next to Clearwater Pass.
On the surface, the water there looks calm, but the appearance is deceptive. Clearwater Pass, a narrow boat channel between Clearwater Beach and Sand Key, acts as a funnel when tides change, creating a powerful current. And hidden on the bottom near the small beach is a ledge where the water abruptly changes from wading depth to about 15 feet deep.
Poindexter, 27, had unwittingly wandered into an area that has claimed the lives of several swimmers in past years. His family heard him call out for help. Then he slipped underwater and was gone.
On Monday and again throughout Tuesday, divers, boats and helicopters searched for Poindexter, the current so strong on Labor Day that divers had to be tethered to boats so they wouldn't drift.
Divers have had that difficult duty several times in the past. In 1984, the steep drop-off was cited as a factor in the drowning of a man trying to save a boy's life. In 1999, a 21-year-old Hillsborough County man drowned in the same location. A 14-year-old boy drowned there in 2004 while diving for a boat anchor line.
On the sand, a red sign warns visitors: "Danger. Strong Currents. Not a designated swimming area. No lifeguards on duty. Swim at your own risk."
"You've got millions of gallons of water transferring from the Intracoastal through that small pass," said Kent Watts, special operations chief for Clearwater Fire & Rescue.
"The water is coming out so fast."
While divers worked Tuesday, Poindexter's loved ones lingered along the shore, weeping and hugging each other, staring at the calm blue waters.
"They realize," said Watts, "we're not going to find him alive."
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On Tuesday, Poindexter, who lived in Spring Hill with his girlfriend and four children, was supposed to start a new job.
In May, he had volunteered to coach basketball for the Boys & Girls Club of Hernando County summer program. He loved it so much, said club operations director Connie Cordell, he put in 40 hours a week or more.
Poindexter worked with most of the 200 children, ages 5 to 16, who took part in the camp, but had a special knack for connecting with older kids, Cordell said. Within three weeks, she wanted to hire him.
"He had energy and enthusiasm and brought out the same in the kids," she said. "It took no time for them to realize he was somebody trustworthy and caring."
Executive director Josh Kelly called Poindexter "a great guy, very caring and family oriented."
So he was offered a part-time position at the club's satellite program at Fox Chapel Middle School in Spring Hill, where he would serve as a mentor, teach life skills and coach sports.
By Tuesday, children in the program knew what had happened. Counselors were on hand to help children who needed it.
Mariah Barrett, a 12-year-old sixth-grader at Fox Chapel who attended the summer program, said Poindexter was always smiling and giving high-fives.
"He's not the kind of person who would yell at you," Mariah said. "He would just talk it over."
Poindexter's neighbor on Spring Hill Drive, Sue Krause, 65, doesn't own a car. She said Poindexter often took her to run errands. He mowed her lawn once without being asked. She cried when she heard about his disappearance.
"He was just good-hearted and a good dad," she said. "I'm going to miss him."
Times staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.