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By MIKE BRASSFIELD
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 22, 2001
CLEARWATER -- Rescuers late Wednesday were continuing the search for an off-duty Lealman firefighter reported missing while scuba diving in the Gulf of Mexico.
Vincent K. Auletta, 26, had gone out on a diving trip with four or five other off-duty Lealman firefighters. They had stopped their boat 71/2 to 10 miles off Clearwater Pass when Auletta went underwater and didn't come back up, authorities said.
The U.S. Coast Guard searched by boat for Auletta late Wednesday, and dive teams planned to resume their search this morning.
"Our hopes and prayers go out to all the families of those involved, and especially to the missing diver," said District Chief Rick Porter of the Lealman Fire Department, which serves an area north of St. Petersburg.
About 2:45 p.m., Auletta and another diver donned their gear and dove down about 35 feet to see whether they had found the spot where the group wanted to dive. On their way back to the surface, Auletta's diving companion lost sight of him, said Pinellas sheriff's spokeswoman Marianne Pasha.
"Auletta surfaced briefly and appeared to be floundering in the water," Pasha said.
Auletta told his friends that something was wrong with his diving equipment, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.
Seeing that Auletta was in trouble, another man jumped from the group's 22-foot pleasure boat and tried to rescue him.
"He tried to grasp him by the weight belt, but to no avail, and Auletta slipped away into the water," Pasha said.
Auletta's friends put out a distress call, and the Coast Guard sent a helicopter and two rescue boats to start searching.
"The only thing they found was his breathing apparatus," said Coast Guard Duty Officer Dave Cameron.
Auletta's friends weren't sure how much diving experience he had, according to the Coast Guard.
The Clearwater Fire Department's dive team was called out to search the water, and deputies with the Pinellas sheriff's marine unit were at the scene.
Investigators didn't know exactly what had happened to Auletta. "The information is still sketchy," Pasha said.