TARPON SPRINGS – The families of Willie Ragins and Willie Hightower struggled to find words to describe their feelings as they spent Monday at the boat ramp at Anderson Park, waiting to see whether authorities had found the two missing boaters.
Some tried to hold out hope. Others tried to lend support to other family members.
One man, Ragins’ brother, Leon, felt guilty for not having gone boating with the two Plant City men before they their 14-foot jon boat disappeared in Lake Tarpon late Saturday or early Sunday.
“It’s indescribable,” said Taura Ragins, Willie Ragins’ sister. “I can’t tell you how I feel.”
Her sister-in-law, Lachandra Ragins, helped her. “It’s the not knowing,” she said.
Willie Ragins, a 43-year-old mechanic, and Willie Hightower, a 64-year-old retired forklift operator who worked at Smithfield Foods, fished together often at places throughout the Tampa Bay area.
They had been at Lake Tarpon two weeks before Thanksgiving and had caught some speck, family members said.
At 10 p.m. Saturday, Ragins talked with his wife from the lake, said his mother, Saretha Ragins, 64. His wife asked him whether the wind was high, and he replied that it was not and that he would be home in a couple of hours.
After he and Hightower didn’t show up Sunday morning, authorities launched a search of the 5-mile-long lake, using boats and a helicopter.
Found in the north part of the lake were two coolers, a tackle box, a life jacket, and a chair at the end of a post, which authorities were told had been bolted to the jon boat, Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Cristen Rensel said.
The search resumed Monday, with boats equipped with sonar giving searchers a three-dimensional look at objects in the murky waters. Divers found three boats, but not the one Ragins and Hightower had been in, Rensel said.
Authorities did find a gas can and a small red thermos in the north part of the lake that belonged to the pair, Rensel said.
While members of the Ragins family sat on a bench overlooking the lake or milled about, Hightower’s wife, Mildred, 65, remained in the driver’s seat of her car during the search, She had suffered a stroke in 2003, which left her left side paralyzed, and made it difficult to get around. She was praying her husband wasn’t dead.
“I just hope it’s not true,” she said. “I hope they made it to the other side” of the lake, “I hope they made it out safe.”
“I’m hoping God gave him one more chance.”
The search concluded at nightfall Monday and was expected to resume today.
[email protected] (727) 215-6504.