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Coast Guard will suspend search for missing Florida teens at sunset

The families of the two teenage fishermen who've been missing at sea for a week released a statement thanking the Coast Guard for its efforts but said a private search will continue past Friday using volunteer pilots and aircraft.

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Petty Officer 3rd Class Charles Camarda, left, and Petty Officer 3rd Class Nate Matthews scour the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Savannah, Ga., Tuesday, July 28, 2015, looking for two missing teenage boaters.

Tamara Lush/AP

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The Coast Guard will suspend its search at sunset for two teenage fishermen who've been missing for a week, officials said Friday.

However, Capt. Mark Fedor said the search would continue in the meantime and has been a "true all hands on deck effort." He said the Coast Guard took into consideration Perry Cohen's and Austin Sephanos' age, both 14, their lengthy experience on the water and their "will to live" in keeping the search going so long.

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He expressed his "heartfelt condolences" and called the case "excruciating and gut-wrenching."

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"I know no statistics will ease the pain," he said adding that hundreds of people searched many miles. "We were desperate to find Austin and Perry."

He said what made it "particularly more painful" for those searching is that many of them have children around the same ages, adding that he has a 13 and a 14-year-old.

The families released a statement thanking the Coast Guard for its efforts but said a private search will continue past Friday using volunteer pilots and aircraft.

The boys went missing last Friday and their capsized boat was found Sunday. The Coast Guard has searched waters from South Florida up through South Carolina without success.

The announcement brings to an end a massive sea-and-land search by the Coast Guard, which sent crews out night and day, scouring the Atlantic in hopes of finding the boys. They chased repeated reports of objects sighted in the water, and at times had the help of the Navy and other local agencies. But since the boat was found overturned, no useful clues turned up.

The families had been holding out hope that items believed to have been on the boat, including a large cooler, might be spotted, or that the teens might even have clung to such an object in their struggle to stay alive. Even as hope dimmed, experts on survival said finding the teens alive was still possible. The Coast Guard continued its search, saying it would do so until officials no longer thought the boys could be rescued.

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The saga began July 24, when the boys took Austin's 19-foot boat on what their families said was expected to be a fishing trip within the nearby Loxahatchee River and Intracoastal Waterway, where they were allowed to cruise without supervision. The boys fueled up at a local marina around 1:30 p.m. and set off and later calls to Austin's cellphone went unanswered. A line of summer storms moved through and when the boys still couldn't be reached, police were called.

The Coast Guard launched the search that would stretch on into an eighth day.

The boys grew up on the water in Tequesta, Florida, constantly boated and fished, worked at a tackle shop together and immersed themselves in a life on the ocean. Their families said they learned to swim before taking their first steps. They clung to faith in their boys' knowledge of the sea, even speculating they might have fashioned a raft and spear to keep them afloat and fed while adrift.

Many unknowns about the boys' status persisted throughout the ordeal, including whether they were wearing life jackets (one was found near the boat, but it wasn't clear how many were aboard) and whether they had food or water. The Coast Guard said it tried to err toward optimism in its own assessment of how long to press on, assuming a best-case outcome.

Along the way, some suggested the teens shouldn't have been allowed to boat on their own. Many others, though, voiced support, saying voyages with set boundaries are normal among boating families, and that the parents had no control over what ultimately happened.

Locals turned out night after night for vigils, poured money into a collection to fund private search efforts, used their own boats and planes and walked the coastline in pursuit of any little clue that might make a break. The efforts got an early boost from a high-profile neighbor of the families, NFL Hall of Famer Joe Namath, who helped garner publicity for the story.

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Sedensky reported from Tequesta, Florida.