Pair Rescued After 5 Days Adrift in Raft in Gulf

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GULF OF MEXICO -- A DeFuniak Springs man, missing with a friend for more than a week after their barge sank during Tropical Storm Debby, called home Thursday after being rescued from a raft by a passing ship.

The man's mother, DeFuniak Springs resident Joyce Bell, said her son, Gerald Chessher, 57, and his friend Vance Bryan, 48, left Captiva Island on June 18, expecting to take a barge across the Gulf to Cancun and then south to Belize.

They checked in with friends and family along the way, but nine days ago the calls stopped. Bell and her family suspected something was wrong.

The Coast Guard station in St. Petersburg received a call Sunday morning from a friend of one of the men stating the two were overdue in Cancun and hadn't made contact with anyone to update their position.

The Coast Guard launched a C-130 aircraft from the Coast Guard Air Station in Clearwater, early Sunday afternoon to search the Gulf. The search was ongoing when the men were found.

About 6:30 p.m. Thursday, a raft carrying the two was spotted by a barge tug about 90 miles northwest of Tarpon Springs.

Bryan and Chessher were taken aboard the tug barge Rikki S. They told their rescuers that their barge had sunk.

The tug barge contacted the 7th Coast Guard District command center in Miami to report the rescue.

Coast Guard Cutter Bonito from Pensacola, was diverted and arrived on scene. The Bonito's crew transfered the survivors to the cutter and then took them to St. Petersburg, where EMS crews awaited their arrival about 1 a.m. Friday.

While on the cutter, Chessher called his mother to tell her of the rescue and wish her a happy belated birthday. Bell, whose birthday was Wednesday, was in the process of planning a memorial service for her son when the call came.

Chessher and Bryan are being treated for dehydration, malnutrition, and exposure to the elements, but family members said they're expected to be okay.