CRYSTAL RIVER — Even as the preacher spoke of grief and heaven and asking why this happened to Will Bleakley, the young woman with her back pressed against the chapel wall had hope. He's stranded on some tiny island out there, some island no one knew about, but he's there, Jamie Ellsworth thought. In the days leading up to this, she dreamed they would all be at the memorial service, crying, praying, and then someone would rush to the podium, saying they had just gotten a call and that Bleakley, her friend since childhood, was somehow alive. But as the minutes ticked past at his service Saturday afternoon, the call never came, and Ellsworth dropped her head and wiped tears from her face. After sending so much hope to the universe, it's hard to let it go. "This doesn't make sense," she said.
Bleakley and three friends — Marquis Cooper, Corey Smith and Nick Schuyler — went fishing off Egmont Key on Feb. 28. All were big, strong guys — Cooper, 26, and Smith, 29, played in the NFL; Bleakley, 25, and Schuyler, 24, were former teammates at the University of South Florida. Around 5 p.m. that Saturday, their boat capsized. After a massive search, Schuyler was found clinging to the boat Monday, dehydrated and battered, 38 miles offshore.
The three others are lost at sea.
Schuyler spent the week at a hospital and talked with Bleakley's father. Schuyler told him his son was the one who dove underneath the boat to get life jackets. After Cooper and Smith slipped away, it was just the two of them, for 24 hours, trying to stay alive. Schuyler told the Citrus County Chronicle that Bleakley encouraged him to stay upbeat as they hung onto the overturned boat and said they talked each other through the last night before Bleakley died.
"It's the longest thing possible you can imagine," Schuyler told the Chronicle. "He saved my life. I'll never, ever forget Will. I'm only here today because of what Will did."
Bleakley's memorial is the first of the group. His parents, Bob and Betty Bleakley, said they would have been okay to grieve in private. But a friend told them: "It's bigger than you. The whole community needs this."
The chapel at Crystal River United Methodist Church was full 30 minutes before the service, all seats taken, people standing along the walls. Hundreds listened from outside.
"Just knowing how many people knew Will, that they liked him, admired him, considered him their friend — absolutely, that helps," his mother said. "Every parent wants to keep those memories alive."
Bleakley grew up in this small Citrus County town, where his mom and dad own a Firestone business. He got a job in accounting in Tampa after graduating from USF, but was laid off because of the economy. In recent months, he had worked at his parents' business. He had an older brother, Blake, and a girlfriend and lived with a roommate in Tampa. He was an Eagle Scout. His former group, Troop 370, was there in their uniforms. One of the troop leaders, Andy Freund, 65, was proud of Bleakley diving under the boat to get those life jackets. He believes Bleakley tried to save the others before himself.
"I wouldn't have expected anything less of him," said Freund, who wore dark sunglasses so no one would see him cry.
Bleakley was a kind, determined young man who worked his way from being a walk-on at the USF football team to a scholarship starter.
"We are left with an emptiness," the pastor said. But he believes he will see Bleakley in heaven. "And that gives me hope."
Schuyler sat near Bleakley's family. When the service ended, he stood and pointed at a large photo of his friend, as if to say goodbye, and limped outside.
People gathered in a field by the church and watched three, white homing pigeons released, flying separately and then together, as one, circling the crowd and the chapel and then off, out of sight, lost in the blue sky. Ellsworth still didn't want to give up hope. There's no body, no grave, no closure, she said.
"I don't want to accept it."
Information from the Associated Press was used in this story. Erin Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.