Coast guard suspends search for missing players

Published 3:38 am Wednesday, March 4, 2009

CLEARWATER, Fla. — As the four fishing buddies huddled together in the dark, clinging to their capsized boat miles off the Florida coast, a helicopter’s light shone down upon them.

For a while, as the boat drifted in the rough seas, Nick Schuyler could even see the city lights from shore. But the men drifted away as the hours passed, Schuyler told a friend after he was rescued, with the two NFL players aboard disappearing first, leaving him and his college football teammate hanging onto the hull.

‘‘The waves were just so much. They never got a break,’’ said Schuyler’s friend, Scott Miller.

Email newsletter signup

The Coast Guard called off the search Tuesday for the other three: Oakland Raiders linebacker Marquis Cooper, free-agent defensive lineman Corey Smith and former University of South Florida player William Bleakley, three days after their boat capsized Saturday.

Miller said Schuyler told him from his Tampa hospital room that the men initially hung together, trying to come up with plan. Bleakley swam underneath the boat and retrieved three life jackets and a cushion.

Easygoing and an avid fisherman, Bleakley gave the others the vests, Schuyler told Miller, and at least intially was the one clinging to the cushion.

‘‘Will was there as long as he remembered,’’ Miller said. ‘‘I want everyone to know Will’s a hero in this whole thing.’’

Bleakley and Schuyler were former South Florida teammates, and the 24-year-old survivor had helped Cooper and Smith train at a gym.

After scouring about 24,000 square miles of ocean, the Coast Guard said it had done all it could to locate the men. Capt. Timothy Close said officials were sure that if there were any more survivors, they would have been found.

‘‘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.’’

Bleakley’s father appreciated the Coast Guard’s effort.

‘‘I think they were not to be found,’’ Robert Bleakley said.

Schuyler told rescuers after they plucked him from the ocean Monday that the boat was anchored when it capsized.