TAMPA, Fla. – An agency investigating a deadly boating accident involving two NFL players and their friends in the Gulf of Mexico has concluded it was caused when the vessel was improperly anchored and the boat capsized after one of them tried to throttle forward to pry loose the anchor.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's investigation also cited carelessness and operator inexperience as contributing factors. The combination of errors came at the time a storm front was moving in, making conditions on the water very rough.
Oakland Raiders linebacker Marquis Cooper, free-agent NFL defensive lineman Corey Smith, and former University of South Florida players William Bleakley and Nick Schuyler departed from Clearwater Pass, Fla., early Feb. 28 to go offshore fishing for amberjack.
Schuyler, found clinging to the boat two days later, was the lone survivor. The other three men have not been found.
In an in-depth interview with the agency, Schuyler gave this account of the accident:
Early that morning, the men went more than 50 miles offshore in Cooper's 21-foot vessel. It was loaded with two large coolers filled with ice, drinks, food and beer. All of the friends were dressed in warm clothes, sweat suits and jackets.
Around 5:30 p.m., they went to pull up the anchor and head back to port, but the anchor was stuck. Bleakley suggested they tie it to the transom and use the boat's motor to pull it loose.
When Cooper tried to thrust the boat forward, the vessel became submerged and capsized, tossing the men overboard. All four tried uprighting the boat by standing on one side of the overturned vessel. When that didn't work, Bleakley swam underneath and was able to retrieve three life vests, a large cooler and a portable, cushion-type flotation device.
Bleakley, who Schuyler has credited with saving his life, used the makeshift flotation device, which has been described previously as a cushion. The other three wore the vests.
The men appear to have tried everything in their power to rescue themselves: Schuyler told the agency they tried retrieving and using flares, but they were wet, agency Investigator Jim Manson said. They got their cell phones, which were in plastic baggies, but there was no signal.
They knew how many hours were passing because Schuyler had a watch with a light on and was able to keep track of the time. He said that around 5:30 a.m. the next day, Cooper became unresponsive. Schuyler and Bleakley tried to revive him without success.
Cooper's flotation device was removed and Bleakley put it on. The Oakland Raiders linebacker then became separated from the boat.
About an hour later, Smith started to show "possible extreme symptoms of hypothermia." He removed his flotation device and also became separated from the boat.
The two college teammates were the only ones left. They hung on together for about 24 hours, until Bleakley grew weak and removed his life vest as well.
Schuyler said that his friend appeared to die as he was holding onto him. He let his friend go and Bleakley drifted away.
Manson said moving the anchor line to the stern, or back of the boat, contributed to the vessel's instability and flooding when they tried to free it. He described it as a mistake that probably happens every day, but one that a more experienced boater would be aware of and could handle.
Manson recommended cutting the line if boaters are not able to easily free their anchor. The agency advises boaters to take a boating safety course and leave a detailed float plan with friends or family.
Cooper, the boat's owner, had more than 100 hours of boating experience but no formal education, and had been drinking, according to the report.
"Overall, it's just a mistake in anchoring," Manson said.
The Coast Guard released its records on the accident last week. According to the agency, Schuyler told them the boat capsized after their anchor got caught in a reef.
The accuracy of that account was somewhat unclear because Schuyler was suffering from hypothermia and spoke to them shortly after he was pulled from the boat. His doctor said he probably could have only lived another five to 10 hours.
The Coast Guard called off its search after three days of scouring 24,000 miles of ocean.