Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Private search on for missing NFL players in Gulf

Families of missing NFL players continue search off Florida
Private boats and planes searched Wednesday for two NFL players and a third man missing for four days since their boat capsized in the Gulf of Mexico off Florida, family members said.

The Coast Guard called off the official search Tuesday for Oakland Raiders linebacker Marquis Cooper, who owned the boat, free-agent NFL defensive lineman Corey Smith and former South Florida player William Bleakley. But their families appealed for help to keep hunting.

Two or three charters left in the late morning from a St. Petersburg marina and at least one had friends of the families of the missing men aboard, said Don Beggs, who owns one of the local docks. Three private planes also had searched, according to Cooper's father, Bruce Cooper.

A fourth man on the fishing trip, Nick Schuyler, was rescued Monday after crews found him clinging to the boat. His doctor said it's a "miracle" Schuyler survived in the cold water for nearly two days after the boat carrying the men on a fishing trip overturned in rough seas off the Florida coast Saturday.

Dr. Mark Rumbak said the 24-year-old is in good condition but will remain in intensive care in case there are complications. Schuyler was in 63-degree Gulf of Mexico water for around 46 hours and probably could have lived only another five to 10 hours if he wasn't rescued Monday, Rumbak said.

"I think he is extremely fortunate having been in the water for 46, 47 hours and that he's even alive," Rumbak said. "I can't explain it. Some divine providence, I really think."

The missing men's families have set up an e-mail address for experienced pilots and boaters to contact them. Coast Guard Capt. Timothy Close said the agency wouldn't prevent private searches, but discouraged them, saying they could be dangerous. He said authorities believed if there were more survivors, they would have been found.

Free-agent defensive tackle Tank Johnson, a childhood friend and college teammate of Cooper at Washington, was taking a lead role in the renewed search. Johnson, who played for the Dallas Cowboys last season, said the family has not given up hope that the men are still alive.

"I truly believe he is out there somewhere being strong," Johnson said.

Even if the men aren't found alive, it's important to recover their remains so survivors can have closure, Johnson said.

"This kid is going fight to the bitter end," Cooper's father said. "And so in my heart of hearts, I just believe he's out there somewhere just waiting to be found, so that really gives me strength in this effort to find him."

Bleakley's mother said Wednesday that Schuyler gave her a harrowing account of the men's fight to survive after the boat capsized. Betty Bleakley said Schuyler told her the men swam back to the boat after being repeatedly hurled by strong waves.

"To listen to Nick, they fought real hard to come home," Betty Bleakley said. "Nick said that all of them fought, just fought to stay alive."

Bleakley and Schuyler, college teammates, managed to stick together for about 24 hours. She says they talked about how they would live their lives differently.

"He said they huddled together, they just kept climbing back on the boat after getting knocked off," she said. "He said they just kept fighting. They fought. They fought."

Betty Bleakley said her son's actions were heroic. She said he swam underneath the boat to get life vests for the other men and then used a cushion for floatation himself.

"That was Will," she said. "Will was calm and level-headed and would just try to think things through.

"As painful as it was talking to Nick, it's providing some closure for us," she said.

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