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    Mourning to attend a family wedding

    The mother of a firefighter lost on a diving trip readies for a happy family occasion while moving toward closure.


    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 10, 2001

    DUNEDIN -- Connie Auletta will be at her niece's wedding today. She promises to smile as her niece marries a firefighter.

    Her thoughts may drift from time to time to her son, Kenny, a Lealman firefighter who vanished Feb. 21 while diving in the Gulf of Mexico seven miles off Clearwater Pass. But she knows her son wouldn't want his family to be sad on such a special day.

    If anything, today will be better than the days since her son disappeared because Connie Auletta has found the closure she has been seeking.

    She learned Friday morning that her son's body had been found.

    "I'm glad they've found him," she said. "I'm really glad for all of us."

    Michigan resident Ryan James Kintz, 20, was looking for driftwood on Englewood Beach in Charlotte County south of Sarasota about 9 p.m. Thursday when he found the body.

    At first, "I thought it was a big log," he said. "But then I saw what looked like arms and legs and went for a flashlight."

    He and his grandfather, whom Kintz is visiting, then took off their shoes and socks and pulled the body up onto the beach.

    Though investigators have not positively identified the body as Kenny Auletta, his mother said investigators have told him the body was found with diving equipment that matches what her son was wearing when he disappeared. She believes it is him.

    "They've pretty much said it's him," she said.

    Sheriff's office Sgt. Greg Tita said the body had on a full black wet suit, black dive gloves, a weight belt and a medium-sized buoyancy compensator. There also were fins, gauges and a tank, he said.

    The body is about 5-feet-7-inches tall and 160 pounds, which matches Auletta's description. Pinellas officials learned of the discovery when Charlotte County authorities issued a Teletype to local agencies.

    The Medical Examiner's Office will positively identify the body, possibly through dental records, Connie Auletta said.

    Kenny Auletta, a 26-year-old firefighter-paramedic with the Lealman Fire Department, was diving with four fellow firefighters Feb. 21 when he disappeared. After they anchored their boat, Auletta and fellow firefighter Andrew Rexford dove to the bottom.

    Rexford determined they had not anchored in the right spot and started ascending, losing Auletta in the bubbles on the way up, according to Pinellas sheriff's officials.

    When Rexford surfaced, he could not find his friend. Then Auletta surfaced about 40 yards behind the boat. His mask was off and his regulator was not in his mouth. He began to bob in the water.

    Firefighter Charles Guiles, who was on the boat, dived into the water and swam to Auletta. He reached for Auletta's buoyancy compensator as Auletta sank. Guiles, being pulled underwater, held on as long as he could. He eventually had to let go and resurface without Auletta.

    Rexford swam to the area. With a full tank of air, he dived in search of Auletta. But he could not find him. U.S. Coast Guard, Sheriff's Office and Fire Department boats searched for several days, but their search also failed.

    Connie Auletta said she is grateful to all the people of who searched for her son, including good Samaritans, the U.S. Coast Guard and local Fire Department divers who kept searching the gulf waters days after the official search was called off Feb. 23.

    But she knew as soon as she heard what happened that her son was dead. A memorial service for him was held last week.

    Still, she will sleep better at night knowing he has been found, the uneasy thoughts about the unknown now at rest.

    And she plans to smile as her niece weds a firefighter today.

    "We'll have a happy wedding tomorrow," she said.

    - Alyssa Schnugg of the Englewood Sun-Herald contributed to this report.

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