Coast Guard ends search for three men lost at sea

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CLEARWATER, Fla. --- After three days of combing 24,000 miles of ocean, the Coast Guard on Tuesday stopped searching for two NFL players and a third man lost in rough, chilly Gulf of Mexico waters off the Florida coast.

Donald Nicholson (left), a friend of Marquis Cooper's, walks with a member of Corey Smith's family at the Coast Guard station after learning the search would be called off at sundown.  Associated Press
Associated Press
Donald Nicholson (left), a friend of Marquis Cooper's, walks with a member of Corey Smith's family at the Coast Guard station after learning the search would be called off at sundown.

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, had been missing since Saturday when their boat capsized during a fishing trip.

Bleakley's father said he thought the Coast Guard did everything it could and that his expectations lowered after only one survivor was found Monday, nearly two days after the four friends were knocked out of their 21-foot boat.

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

Coast Guard Capt. Timothy Close said officials were sure that if there were any more survivors, they would have been found.

Crews did rescue Bleakley's former South Florida teammate, 24-year-old Nick Schuyler, who managed to stay with the boat.

Scott Miller, a friend of the college teammates, said Schuyler told him that on the first night, a chopper shone a light right above them and that later on, as they continued to drift, he could even see lights from the shore.

It was Bleakley who swam underneath to retrieve three life jackets he could find, along with a cushion, Schuyler told Miller from a Tampa hospital. Bleakley used the cushion and the other men wore the jackets, Miller said.

But the waves were powerful, and after Cooper and Smith got separated from the boat, the college teammates tried to hang on.

"He said basically that Will helped him keep going," Schuyler told Miller.

"The waves were just so much. They never got a break."

He said searchers came across a cooler and a life jacket 16 miles southeast of the boat, but saw no other signs of the men.

"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.

Lions running back 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 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."

Close said some family members asked about continuing the search on their own, which he discouraged but said the Coast Guard wouldn't prevent. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission might be heading out today to recover the boat.


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