Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Pinellas sheriff: Search continues for two missing men swept into Gulf of Mexico

ST. PETE BEACH — It was supposed to be a spring break cruise along the Gulf of Mexico for 15 international students visiting Florida. But the waters were so rough Tuesday that the boat they chartered didn't get that far.

After leaving Maximo Marina, the choppy surf forced captain Todd Davis to anchor the Jaguar, a 71-foot Sea Ray boat, before it could make it past Shell Key. The students, all from China, asked if they could jump into the water.

What happened next sparked a massive search-and-rescue operation. Student Jie Luo, 21, couldn't get back into the boat. A crew member, Andrew Dillman, 27, dove in to help him. Both were quickly swept away about 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, authorities said.

"The last anybody saw of them they were in the current and being pulled out toward the gulf," Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said Wednesday afternoon on Pass-a-Grille as the search for the two men continued.

Neither man was wearing a flotation device. The captain threw devices into the water but the wind carried them away from the men. The captain weighed anchor to move the boat, the sheriff said, but by that time the men were already out of sight.

So if the water was too rough to sail in, then why did the students jump in? The sheriff said investigators are trying to answer that question.

"There seems to be a little bit of a dispute . . .," Gualtieri said. "The student said they asked for permission to get into the water. Davis didn't say they couldn't. Davis says he told them not to because it was too rough. So that part of it we're still trying to flesh out and it's under investigation."

The sheriff said the students came from Orlando to Pinellas County to charter the boat, which they booked online with Florida Yacht Charters for $2,000. He said the students brought a cooler of champagne, beer and wine aboard but that authorities don't suspect that any crew members were intoxicated.

Jie is a student at Colorado State University, which is where 14 of the students on the trip went to school. One student was from Stony Brook University of New York.

The vessel left Maximo Marina about 4 p.m. The captain told authorities they slowly cruised around, but he decided conditions were too rough to enter the Gulf of Mexico so he decided to drop anchor.

Five students jumped into the water and climbed back into the boat twice. It was on the third try that Jie started struggling in the water, authorities said. That's when Dillman dove in to help.

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

Crews from the Sheriff's Office, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission were still actively searching for the men Wednesday evening.

Gualtieri said the Chinese consulate in Houston was informed of the incident, and that Jie's family was also notified. They were deciding whether to travel to the United States.

"The safety and well-being of our students is our top priority and we are very concerned to hear of what has happened in Florida," said a statement issued by Colorado State University.

Florida Yacht Charters declined to comment Wednesday. Davis, the captain, could not be reached for comment.

Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Sara DiNatale at sdinatale@tampabay.com. Follow @sara_dinatale.

Pinellas sheriff: Search continues for two missing men swept into Gulf of Mexico 03/15/17 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 15, 2017 9:30pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Senate Obamacare effort dies; Rubio in favor of repeal, Nelson against

    Blogs

    WASHINGTON - The Senate Republican effort to Obamacare failed early Friday, with John McCain providing a decisive vote.

    The Senate vote
  2. Senate ponders health care bill it doesn't want to be law

    National

    Buoyed by a signal from House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell introduced a pared-down health care bill late Thursday that he hoped would keep alive Republican ambitions to repeal Obamacare.

    Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., left, and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., expressed concerns about passing the “skinny repeal” of Obamacare without assurances of further negotiations.
  3. Arrest made in shooting death of 19-year-old found in lot

    News

    A 20-year-old Tampa man was arrested Thursday night for the shooting death of a 19-year-old whose body was discovered in a vacant lot on Tuesday.

  4. Rays fall to Yankees in 11 on Brett Gardner homer (w/ video)

    The Heater

    NEW YORK — The front office did its part Thursday, making two trades to bolster the roster in a push for the playoffs. But the Rays didn't follow up in a frustrating 6-5 11-inning loss to the Yankees.

    Rays reliever Andrew Kittredge stands on the mound and can only watch as the Yankees’ Brett Gardner starts to circle the bases after his walkoff home run leading off the 11th inning.
  5. Believe it! Rays are buyers, trade for reliever Dan Jennings and 1B/DH Lucas Duda

    The Heater

    NEW YORK — Dan Jennings' ability to render lefty hitters useless with a sinker that gets beaten into the ground and Lucas Duda's power to blast baseballs off and over outfield walls should make the Rays better.

    Lucas Duda