WINTER HAVEN, Fla. (WFLA) — More than 24 hours after two Polk County men are believed to have drowned in Lake Eloise in Winter Haven, officials from various agencies, including the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, Seminole County Sheriff’s Office, and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission are still searching Sunday for the bodies in the water.
“They’re out having an afternoon of pleasure on the water,” said Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd at a press conference Sunday.
Winter Haven residents 38-year-old Velcky Velasquez and 32-year-old Orlando Ortiz were celebrating their one year anniversary of dating Saturday and brought along their friend Jeffrey Marrero, of Auburndale, and his two young daughters.
Sheriff Judd said the adults successfully passed a class in order to rent a boat for the day.
“It is a rough day on the water,” Judd said. “The wind’s blowing about 20 miles per hour, there’s a two foot chop with whitecaps.”
When the group found a spot to relax, Velasquez jumped in the water with the anchor.
“She’s just very inexperienced,” Judd said. “So she thinks you have to get into the water, put the anchor in, and then tie it to the boat.”
When Velasquez resurfaced, police said the boat had floated away. She struggled to swim after it, so the two men jumped in to help her. The boat kept floating away.
“The two gentlemen are told to us to be average swimmers,” Judd explained.
Eventually, Velasquez flipped onto her back and floated, according to the sheriff. The two men swam after the boat with the two girls inside, but are believed to have drowned in the process.
“You never ever want to leave the boat without a life jacket on,” said Dean Haskin.
Haskin is the commander for Division 7 of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary.
“We recommend people stay in the boat,” Haskin said. “We have a throwable that you can always throw out there with a line to have that person grab onto and pull them back to the boat.”
Haskin said extensive training and education is necessary to be out on the water.
“I think people don’t realized is that you have many forces that act upon the boat,” Haskin elaborated. “You have wind, you have tides, you have currents.”
He said he’s seen this before — it’s even happened to him.
“This isn’t uncommon for somebody to decide they’re going to take a quick dip in the water,” Haskin said. “And all of the sudden the boat starts floating away.”
He says Velasquez made the right move by floating on her back and fighting against any panic setting in.
As of Sunday night, however, the two men are yet to be found, despite officials using helicopters, boats, underwater drones and sonar.
“Our policy at the sheriff’s office is when someone goes into the lake such as this,” Sheriff Judd said. “We never leave until we find them.”
The sheriff said the water in the lake varies from nine to 20 feet deep or so, but the men could be floating anywhere from the bottom to middle.
“We’re there. We’re involved,” said Judd. “We’re searching for these two missing gentlemen as if they were our brothers or our children.”