Coast Guard calls off search for three men
CLEARWATER, Fla. - The Coast Guard called off the search yesterday for two NFL players and a third man lost at sea off the Florida coast after their boat capsized during a fishing trip.
The search ended at sundown, with Oakland Raiders linebacker Marquis Cooper, free agent defensive lineman Corey Smith, who played with the Detroit Lions last season, and former South Florida player William Bleakley still missing in the rough, chilly seas.
"We're extremely confident that if there are any survivors on the surface of the water that we would have found them," said Coast Guard captain Timothy Close, who added that searchers scoured the equivalent of 24,000 square miles over more than 60 hours.
Hopes were raised Monday when crews found a fourth man who was aboard, 24-year-old former South Florida player Nick Schuyler, who managed to stay with the boat after it overturned Saturday night.
William Bleakley's father said he felt comfortable with the Coast Guard's decision and that his expectations lowered after only one survivor was found.
"I think they did everything that they could," Robert Bleakley said of the Coast Guard. "I think they were not to be found."
Close said searchers found a cooler and a life jacket 16 miles southeast of the boat, but no other signs of the men.
Prospects for survival became more grim throughout the day, with Cooper's father saying the Coast Guard told him privately officials were losing hope because so much time had passed and hypothermia risks were high. Coast Guard officials said publicly they still were hopeful.
"I think the families understood that we put in a tremendous effort," Close said. "Any search and rescue case we have to stop is disappointing."
Family and friends embraced and sobbed outside the Coast Guard station shortly before the announcement. They left without talking publicly.
"I'm sure that I'll speak of Will like he's still with us for a long time," Robert Bleakley said later of his son. "He'll be an inspiration for me for a long time. He always has been. I told everybody, I call him my hero."
Lions running back Kevin Smith called Corey Smith "a good, quiet guy, who always put in an honest day's work."
Kevin Smith, a Florida native, said he has been fishing off the coast as far as the men were in boats smaller, the same size, and larger than the 21-foot watercraft that capsized.
"The No. 1 thing when you're out there is, you have to respect the water," he said. "I know those guys had safety vests. I'm trying not to even think about it. That's a tough way to go."
The four friends left Clearwater Pass early Saturday in calm weather, but winds picked up through the day and the seas got heavy, with waves of 7 feet and higher, peaking at 15 feet Sunday. A relative alerted the Coast Guard early Sunday after the men did not return. There was no distress signal.
Close said some family members asked about continuing the search on their own, which he discouraged but said the Coast Guard wouldn't prevent.
"I can't emphasize this enough," Close said. "We do not want any additional search and rescue cases resulting from people who are outside their experience level."
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission may be heading out today to recover the boat, which was still on the water.
Schuyler told the Coast Guard the boat was anchored when it capsized. The four friends were able to put on life vests and huddle together, but eventually became separated, he said.
Schuyler was dehydrated and showing symptoms of hypothermia but was upgraded to fair yesterday.