Published March 03, 2009
The Coast Guard called off its search for three missing football players at sunset Tuesday.
The news came after crews combed choppy waters off the Florida Gulf Coast for a third full day since NFL players Marquis Cooper and Corey Smith and friend William Bleakley disappeared. Their fishing boat capsized in stormy seas Saturday evening.
One of the four on the excursion, Nick Schuyler, survived. He said the four friends were able to put on life vests and huddle together, but the others eventually became separated.
Coast Guard Capt. Timothy Close told reporters that the crews were wrapping up their search by the time the sun went down, but commended their efforts.
"It's a very, very dynamic environment out there on the open sea," he said.
The Coast Guard said it doesn't believe anyone is on the surface of the water.
"We're extremely confident that if there are any survivors on the surface of the water that we would have found them," Close said.
Searchers found an orange life vest and a cooler floating in the water 16 miles southeast of the boat Tuesday afternoon.
The discovery of the vest came as the father of one of the lost NFL players said the Coast Guard's hopes of finding the three alive were waning.
Bruce Cooper — whose son, Oakland Raiders linebacker Marquis Cooper, owns the boat that capsized while he was fishing with three friends — said the Coast Guard told families privately that officials weren't optimistic because of the time that had passed and the possibility of hypothermia.
Lions running back Kevin Smith called Corey Smith "a good, quiet guy, who always put in an honest day's work."
Contrary to earlier reports, Capt. Close said the two missing NFL players and a third man — along with the fourth, surviving boater — were without the vests the moment they went overboard.
"They didn’t have their life jackets on, but they immediately swam under the boat ... and were able to put the life jackets on," Close told reporters Tuesday.
He said Cooper, free-agent defensive lineman Smith, former University of South Florida player Bleakley and survivor Schuyler were contending with very windy, harsh conditions.
"The weather picked up ... and got rough," Close said. "These gentlemen were out in the dark with no lights on."
The Coast Guard crews embarked on another intensive search in still-chilly Florida seas after the weekend accident.
Close said three vessels, a plane and a helicopter would continue aggressively hunting through the day for signs of Cooper, Smith and Bleakley.
The fourth person with them, ex-South Florida football player Schuyler, was found alive and conscious but very weak on Monday clinging to the overturned 21-foot boat owned by Cooper.
"The plan right now is to continue the search through the day," Close told reporters Tuesday. "We're still very actively searching."
In addition to the inflatable life vest found Tuesday afternoon, Close said crews earlier discovered a regular jacket in the water but no other signs of the three missing men, he said.
"We did find one dark jacket floating, no name on it," said Close. "That's it so far."
Investigators were able to get only scant details of what happened from Schuyler because of his condition — but what he told them allowed Coast Guard teams to narrow their effort Monday and Tuesday to a smaller patch of sea near Clearwater.
"Mr. Schuyler was obviously very exhausted, cold and dehydrated, so we were only able to get a little information," Close said.
The Coast Guard said searchers spotted Schuyler off the coast of Florida from a half-mile away and he helped himself into a small rescue boat.
The lieutenant commander and operations coordinator on the Coast Guard cutter that located the Ohio native said the 24-year-old college player had a life jacket on and was responding to the crew.
Schuyler was dehydrated and suffering from hypothermia when he was found hanging onto the hull 35 miles south of Clearwater. But his condition improved to fair at a hospital Tuesday.
He told rescuers that the boat was anchored when it flipped Saturday evening in rough seas.
Searchers have covered more than 20,000 square miles, according to Close. Their path took them south of where the boat flipped over. Weather conditions improved Tuesday.
Close wouldn't speculate Tuesday morning on the men's chances of being rescued alive.
The missing players faced dwindling odds of survival after more than two days in the water, though their size and good health could have helped them fight hypothermia.
"With all of these men being past, present football players, they do have a much larger physique than a lot of people," Petty Officer Robert Simpson said. "So their odds are going to be definitely in their favor."
Cooper, 26, is 6-foot-3, 230 pounds; Smith, 29, is 6-foot-2, 250 pounds. Bleakley, 25, played tight end but his size wasn't immediately known.
Hypothermia can set in after 18 hours in 64-degree water. Water temperatures were in the mid- to upper-60s Tuesday.
Bruce Cooper told reporters Tuesday that he's "mentally exhausted" and the experience has been "gut-wrenching," but he is trying to "stay strong" for his family. He has faith his son could still be alive.
"He's a fighter. He doesn't back down. He's just an extreme fighter," the worried father said. "I'm hoping he's out in the waters right now just fighting. He doesn't give up."
He said he'd been out fishing with his son a few years ago, and Marquis went every chance he got.
"He loved fishing, loved the water," Bruce Cooper said. "He's a gregarious, outgoing, fun-loving kid. He’d invite you to go fishing with him."
The men's families and Schuyler said they had flares aboard, in addition to the inflatable jackets.
Schuyler's mother, Marsha Schuyler, said her son told her he survived by thinking about how he didn't want her to go to his funeral.
Jack Scharf, Cooper's agent, said he had no comment on the Coast Guard's announcement about the end of the search. A man who answered the phone at the home of Smith's father, sounding upset, said no one there could comment.
James Allen, a marine safety consultant who once worked search and rescue operations with the Coast Guard, said the chances of finding survivors diminish after people have been in the water three days.
Survivors have been found who were floating for days, but "you just can't swim forever," Allen said.
The four men left Clearwater Pass early Saturday in calm weather, but heavy winds picked up through the day and the waters grew rough, with waves of 7 feet and higher that peaked at 15 feet on Sunday.
A relative alerted the Coast Guard early Sunday after the men did not return as expected. The Coast Guard said it did not receive a distress signal.
The men were aboard an Everglades-manufactured boat, which is built with compressed foam encased in fiberglas, making it difficult to sink.
Cooper, a 26-year-old who owns the boat, was selected in the third round of the 2004 draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers out of Washington. He played 26 games for the Bucs in his first two pro seasons, then led a nomadic NFL existence.
Cooper and Smith, 29, became friends when they were teammates at Tampa Bay. Smith signed with the Bucs as an undrafted free agent in 2002, and spent last season with Detroit before becoming a free agent. The former North Carolina State standout recorded 42 tackles (28 solo), three sacks and 10 special teams tackles in 2008, his best NFL season.
Bleakley, a 25-year-old former tight end from Crystal River, Fla., was on the USF football team in 2004 and 2005. He had one reception for 13 yards in his career, which also included some time on special teams.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.