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Search called off for missing Hernando man near Sand Key

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Published:   |   Updated: September 3, 2013 at 05:56 PM

CLEARWATER — When a beach-goer disappears in any body of water, there’s a heart-breaking point where any rescue attempt becomes a simple search for a body. Then, in time, that effort, too, is called off.

That’s what happened Tuesday, a day after James E. Poindexter vanished 50 feet from shore at Bayside Park, a spit of beach on the south side of the Clearwater Pass bridge, across the street from Sand Key Park.

The 27-year-old father of four, from Spring Hill, couldn’t swim, authorities say.

Poindexter was with a friend, wading in chest-deep water on a sandbar, when he plunged in, apparently thinking the sandbar would quickly re-emerge and he could continue wading, said Lt. David Yawn of Clearwater Fire & Rescue. But the sand bar didn’t continue.

Clearwater firefighters arrived shortly after Poindexter’s 2 p.m. disappearance, but they got conflicting reports as to where Poindexter was last seen, so a search grid that should have been 25 feet by 25 feet became 100 by 100 feet before it was narrowed down, said Kent Watts, special operations chief for Clearwater’s fire department.

“We had people in the water within three minutes of receiving the call,” he said.

Firefighters used jet skis and rescue boards, which resemble surfboards but are bigger. They brought in divers, including some off-duty firefighters. A tiny fleet soon formed, made up of the city fire department’s boat and boats from the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

The sheriff’s office also flew overhead in its helicopter, as, in time, did the U.S. Coast Guard. Salvage boats also lent a hand.

But Poindexter didn’t turn up.

Divers on Monday were hamstrung by a fast current created by the outgoing tide, where massive amounts of water in the waterway rush, as if through a funnel, through the pass and into the Gulf of Mexico. Sediment was thick, visibility almost nonexistent.

“I couldn’t see my hands,” said Lt. Steve Coward, the dive team leader for Clearwater Fire & Rescue. “I could see maybe about two feet, maybe to my wrist.”

Sonar equipment picked out bodies of mass similar to a human body, but when divers followed through, they found instead soft coral, tires, barrels, concrete blocks, and buried flotation devices, Watts said. Rescuers searched for about five hours on Monday.

“At sunset we brought it to a close,” Watts said.

“We never want to give up hope, but after about two hours or three hours and no sighting of him and him not coming up, we slowly switch to recovery mode, which is hard to do because everyone is giving 110 percent.”

Tuesday’s search was called off about 3:15 p.m. after about six hours.

sthompson@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-7604

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