Search continues for missing BR firefighter

Crews continued searching the Intracoastal Waterway on Wednesday for a Baton Rouge firefighter reported missing two weeks ago in lower St. Martin Parish.

Local volunteers and fellow firefighters joined a search team combing an eight-mile stretch near the Belle River boat launch, where Jacob P. Lewis was last seen trying to attach a boat to a trailer, authorities said.

“Everybody’s working hard to bring closure to the family, but unfortunately we haven’t had any success yet,” Assumption Parish Sheriff Mike Waguespack said. “It’s been a difficult task.”

While authorities said they are no less determined to find Lewis, the search has been scaled back since his Jan. 30 disappearance, as some agencies have pulled back resources but remained on call.

Stopping only during darkness and inclement weather, crews are using “everything they have to try to find him,” said Adam Einck, a spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

The effort includes dragging the waterway and using sonar, dive teams and cadaver dogs, Einck said. “They even had a helicopter up in the air again a couple days ago,” he said.

Lewis, 28, of Walker, had gone out with his wife to scout areas to set crawfish traps and was reported missing shortly after returning to the boat launch, authorities have said. Lewis backed the couple’s truck down to attach the boat to the trailer, authorities have said, but after a while, his wife noticed the boat adrift and Lewis trying to swim, hollering for her to call 911.

Over the past two weeks, sheriff’s deputies have been joined by fishermen and local volunteers who offered their boats to help in the search, said Maj. Ginny Higgins of the St. Martin Parish Sheriff’s Office.

Higgins said it is “very unusual” for a search to take this long, adding a confluence of factors — including Lewis’ heavy clothing — has complicated the effort.

Lewis was wearing wading boots and an insulation suit when he went missing, Higgins said. Heavy boat traffic and currents have prompted authorities to broaden their search area.

“Normally, when we have a drowning or something like this, within a few days they either surface or we locate them that day or the next,” Higgins said.

The Baton Rouge Fire Department is also helping in the search.

Lewis’ disappearance, for many of his colleagues, has been akin to losing a brother, said Shane Spillman, president of the Baton Rouge Association of Firefighters Local 557.

“All of our guys have been very supportive in going down there and volunteering their time,” Spillman said.

In a statement widely circulated on Facebook, Lewis’ family expressed thanks for the steady community support, which has come in many forms. Spillman said he has seen more than a dozen private boats on the water searching for Lewis on some days.

Others contributed to a fundraiser for the Lewis family, in which firefighters cooked jambalaya and gumbo and quickly sold out of both at the Spanish Town Mardi Gras Parade on Saturday .

“It amazed us how many people stopped by just to show their support for him and his family,” Spillman said. “The outpouring has made it a little bit easier for us in the Fire Department. We’re always there to help people, and it’s nice when they return the favor.”