SPRING HILL — Tuesday was to be James Poindexter’s first day on the job as basketball coach and mentor at the Spring Hill Boys and Girls Club.
After three months as a volunteer, he was excited to become a member of staff at the club’s Fox Chapel Middle School site.
Instead, the club’s executive director, Joshua Kelly, had to call in school district grief counselors to help the kids deal with what now looks like the drowning of their cherished teacher who went wading Monday in the water near the Clearwater Pass bridge to Sand Key.
The 27-year-old father of four, who lived in Spring Hill, could not swim, according to authorities. After a day of searching by emergency crews, the search was called off Tuesday.
“We don’t want to believe it but we understand it,” Kelly said of the discontinuation of the search.
Kelly said Poindexter volunteered throughout the summer seven or eight hours a day, Monday to Friday and was so excited when he got a full-time position with the club. Today was to be a big day for Poindexter and the 200 children he was to teach.
“He was a great guy, an amazing guy of great character and a great family man who truly cared,” Kelly said.
Kelly said letters are going out to all club members and their families.
“Obviously, it is a sad day for us,” Kelly said. “He’s going to be a big loss to the organization.”
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.
Poindexter was with a friend, wading in chest-deep water on a sand bar, when he plunged in, apparently thinking the sand bar would quickly re-emerge, and he could resume his wading, said Lt. David Yawn of Clearwater Fire & Rescue. But there was no continuation of the sand bar.
Clearwater firefighters arrived shortly after the 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 surf boards but are bigger. They brought in divers, including some off-duty. A tiny fleet soon formed, made up of the city fire department’s boat, and boats operated by 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 non-existent.
“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 corral, tires, barrels, concrete blocks, and buried flotation devices, Watts said.
“At sunset we brought it to a close,” Watts said of Monday’s efforts.
“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 one-hundred and ten percent.”
Tampa Tribune reporter Stephen Thompson contributed to this report.