Update: Airboaters lost on Lake Okeechobee; FWC continues search

GLADES COUNTY — Florida Wildlife Commission officials continued to search Lake Okeechobee this week for a Myakka City couple who have been lost on the big lake since Saturday evening.

John Russ, 72, and his wife, Diane Russ, 62, were reported missing when they failed to return from an airboat trip on Saturday evening.New Lake O Map_2

According to Carol Lyn Parrish, FWC South Region Public Information Officer, the couple put their airboat in at Harney Pond. They were last seen fishing near Bird Island, east of Lakeport.

They were reported missing Saturday at 8:43 p.m. by a friend after they did not return from their fishing trip when expected.

FWC officials along with help from the Glades County Sheriff’s Office, Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office, Lee County Sheriff’s Office and the U.S. Coast Guard searched Saturday night and Sunday for the couple.

“The Coast Guard flew for us all night Saturday and Sunday until mid-day,” said Ms. Parrish.

Around 7:30 p.m. Sunday evening, FWC reported that a 15-foot 2000 Panther model airboat had been found in about 12 feet of water, but they could not confirm if it was the missing couple’s boat at that time due to the poor visibility in the water.

Ms. Parrish explained that the area sheriff’s offices assisted with the search by providing divers and side sonar equipment. She said the sonar equipment was instrumental in locating the sunken boat.

The water visibility is very poor, due to the high winds, the current and the dark water.

OCSO Sgt. Jimmy Mills was one of the rescue divers on the scene Sunday.

“Once on scene it was determined the conditions were not favorable but we would attempt to conduct the dive as safely as possible,” he stated. “The water temperature was approximately 64 degrees with a strong wind. The lake waters had approximately 3-foot waves and very choppy. Lake Rescue had a buoy hooked to what they believed was the sunken vessel.

“Upon entering the water, I followed the buoy line. About 2 feet under the water there was zero visibility. The buoy line had what appeared to be an anchor which was hooked to the cage on the airboat. I had a hard time maintaining my location on the boat due to the waves and current in this area. I was able to verify it was a sunken airboat and the vessel appeared to be on its side slightly upside down. The front of the vessel was pointing north/northwest. The lake bottom in this area consisted of hydrilla approximately 3 feet deep. I was able to check most of the under side of the vessel but my gear and safety line was constantly entangled in the vessel due to the waves and the boat operator struggling to keep close to the scene. I did feel some items in the boat float to the top as I moved through the vessel.

These items were recovered by FWC. After approximately 20-30 minutes it was determined to safely search the entire vessel and remove it from its current location, the conditions would have to improve.” The dive was concluded at that time.

On Monday water conditions were more favorable, and divers from the Lee County Sheriff’s Office were able to positively identify the sunken airboat as registered to Mr. Russ.

The boat was found on the west, open-water side of Bird Island.

Ms. Parrish said while the location of the sunken boat is only about 4.5 miles from the boat ramps at Harney Pond “as the crow flies,” the distance by boat is about 6 miles, as boaters must avoid some areas of heavy vegetation.

The FWC has marked the location of the sunken boat with a navigation buoy to warn other boaters of the underwater hazard.

Ms. Parrish explained that recovery of the airboat will depend on weather conditions, as once the boat is raised, it must be transported over a lengthy distance of open water, and this would be hazardous in high winds.
The search continued Monday and Tuesday with FWC boats and planes searching the area.

Ms. Parrish said the FWC does not have a time table for search and rescue efforts.

“We will continue to search,” she said.

The Coast Guard suspended their search efforts on Sunday.

According to a press statement from the U.S. Coast Guarde, Watchstanders at Coast Guard Sector Miami received a request from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to assist with the search on Saturday evening. Watchstanders issued an Urgent Marine Information Broadcast and launched an Air Station Clearwater MH-60 helicopter crew to search alongside the FWC.

The winds on Saturday were north/northwest.

Publisher/Editor Katrina Elsken can be reached at kelsken@newszap.com

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