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Searching for hope

A week after a man disappears fishing,boats comb Tampa Bay, seeking closure.

Anthony Russo's gold wedding band hangs loosely from his wife's ring finger. She stands on the dock, praying for a miracle as she slowly rubs his ring with her thumb.

Around her, friends and strangers fall into their places. They climb into search boats. They study maps of waterways. They embrace her for the seventh straight day.

"I haven't had him long enough," Rhonda Russo says through a fixed gaze as tears roll down her tanned cheeks.

Her husband is lost at sea.

Mrs. Russo, 31, last spoke with him by cellular phone at 3:30 p.m. on Jan. 27. From his flat-bottom boat south of the Gandy Bridge, he told her he'd be out a little while longer, fishing for snook and redfish.

"I'll be back by dark," he said.

He never came home.

After combing the mangroves and small islands along Weedon Island, the U.S. Coast Guard gave up looking Saturday. Police say foul play is not suspected. Authorities think Russo, 28, might have hit a rogue wave that flipped his 14-foot boat and knocked him unconscious.

"It's highly likely that Mr. Russo did not survive the accident," said U.S. Coast Guard chief Steve Aykroyd.

Despite the grim outlook, 200 friends, family and residents have kept the search going for the avid recreational fisherman, whose dream it was to start a fishing charter business.

They arrive early at Gandy Bridge Marina, the skin on their noses and cheeks peeling from the sun.

Some on shore have come to accept that the mission has switched from rescue to search and recovery. But not Russo's mother, Patricia Steves of Clearwater.

"I just keep in the back of my mind that he's disoriented and he doesn't know who he is or where he is," she says.

Rhonda Russo, a physical education teacher at First Baptist Christian School, met her husband six years ago. She was dating someone else but took an instant liking to Russo and his sense of humor.

They grew close. They shot pool. She watched his softball games.

In October 1998, he invited her fishing. They sat on the beach at Fort De Soto. He threw out a net for bait. Now and then, he'd ask her whether she loved him.

Then he got down on one knee in the sand and asked, "Will you be my wife?"

Like the day he proposed, fishing has helped them bond.

The photo album Mrs. Russo carries is proof that Russo lived fishing. Page after page shows a smiling Russo, his hands cupped under a trout, a blacktip shark, a flounder. He fished Anclote, Fort De Soto, Weedon Island, Sarasota.

One of the last photos is of him proudly holding a 33-inch redfish. The picture, dated Nov. 19, is titled: My Big Catch-N-Release.

A former ad salesman for the St. Petersburg Times and GTE telephone directories, Russo was looking for a job that wasn't too stressful.

"He just loved to fish," Mrs. Russo says. "Being out on the peaceful water and yoking them in."

So it came as no surprise to Mrs. Russo when she got home from teaching Jan. 27 that her husband's truck, trailer and 25-horsepower boat gone.

She called him on his cellular phone. He told her he hadn't been out long and was fishing the shallow flats by the Florida Power Plant at Weedon Island. When they hung up, she fixed hamburgers and french fries for their dinner.

When 7 p.m. rolled around and there was no sign of him, she asked a friend to drive by the Riviera Bay launch site. Russo's truck and trailer were still there.

Soon after, the Coast Guard was called, and Russo's undamaged boat _ its gas tank dry _ was found capsized at Venetian Isles, about 4 miles from where he started fishing.

The top of his bait well, his dry box, cell phone and wallet have been recovered. His brown ball cap washed ashore, and his brother, Joseph Russo, has been wearing it.

The green windbreaker Anthony Russo wore that day was found in water off The Pier in St. Petersburg.

"A person under normal conditions is expected to survive four to five hours in 57-degree water," Aykroyd said.

If Russo did not survive, authorities said, his body probably sank. When bodies decompose, they begin to float, but cold water slows the process.

On Thursday, search conditions on Tampa Bay were ideal. The water, although dark, was calm and flat. The volunteers concentrated their efforts along the shore of Weedon Island.

Andy Kreuger, 33, and Larry Lucke, 43, were looking for anything. They were among a dozen people searching Thursday.

Past the oyster beds, Kreuger called out, "How about middle of the trees to the left?"

Lucke lifted his Bushnell binoculars.

"Palm tree down," shouted Lucke, who doesn't know the families but volunteered anyway.

At idle speed near Venetian Isles, they saw another floating object. As they get closer, they saw a dead pelican.

All morning, Mrs. Russo's fingers rarely left her husband's wedding band, which hung near her diamond wedding ring. Russo didn't want to lose it, so he would leave it on a ring stand on the dresser when he fished or played softball, she said.

"I feel close to him," she said, massaging the band with her thumb. "I want to put it back on him when they bring him in."