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 [email protected] Follow @sara_dinatale.