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Nick Schuyler's condition improves; private search launched for three missing boaters

Experienced captains, from left, Mike McKenzie, Sal Devarti and Mark Hubbard prepare to take a charter boat out from John’s Pass to search for the missing boaters now that the Coast Guard has called off its rescue efforts.

MELISSA LYTTLE | Times

Experienced captains, from left, Mike McKenzie, Sal Devarti and Mark Hubbard prepare to take a charter boat out from John’s Pass to search for the missing boaters now that the Coast Guard has called off its rescue efforts.

TAMPA — The doctor caring for boating accident survivor Nick Schuyler said today he is in good condition and his mind is sharp.

Meanwhile, a private flotilla of about a dozen craft began a search for the three men still missing and presumed dead after a Saturday boating accident in the Gulf of Mexico. The Coast Guard halted its search for Marquis Cooper, Corey Smith and Will Bleakley yesterday afternoon.

Cooper's father this afternoon made a public plea for experienced pilots and boat captains to continue the search. Bruce Cooper said his family was "heartbroken and despondent'' Tuesday when the Coast Guard said it would end the search for his son and his friends, but today an outpouring of support buoyed their spirits. "I have a lot of hope and a lot of optimism,'' he said. "In my heart of hearts I just believe he is out there somewhere just waiting to be found.''

Schuyler's attending physician at Tampa General Hospital, Dr. Mark Rumbak, briefed reporters today on Schuyler's condition. In response to questions of whether Schuyler's accounts could have been compromised by hypothermic delusions, Rumbak said Schuyler seems to have been aware of what was happening and that he would be a believable source.

Today, the Times reported that Schuyler told Coast Guard officials about watching two of his friends drift away and a third swim for help.

"I think the recollections he has were pretty good as to what happened. I would believe that," Rumbak said.

He said that when Schuyler was rescued, his body temperature measured 89 degrees, considered moderate hypothermia. Once he changed into dry clothing and was taken into the hospital, his temperature had risen to 95 to 96 degrees, almost normal. He was a little confused when he arrived and had suffered trauma to his muscles, knees, ankles and chest from repeatedly falling off the boat and being tossed into it. Schuyler remains in the intensive care unit today and will be there for the next couple of days to be monitored, his doctor said.

Rumbak said Schuyler was in better spirits today than he was yesterday. He's spending time with his girlfriend and craving pasta. Rumbak has not gotten into specifics of Schuyler's experience with him, but says he has not exhibited symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder. At this time, he and his family have declined psychological help. The doctor said he doesn't believe Schuyler has fully processed the enormity of what happened.

"I don't think this has fully hit him yet. Something may hit him down the road," he said.

The doctor said he doesn't think Schuyler could have survived if he had been in the water an additional five to 10 hours.

Schuyler is not yet walking. The muscle damage from the hypothermia is significant, and has caused his legs to swell. His ankles are in pain from being knocked into the boat. Rumbak said he may try to walk today. He's also experiencing heartburn and his platelet count is low. Rumbak said he is being closely monitored for any complications from the hypothermia.

Rumbak couldn't explain Schuyler's ability to preserve as high a temperature as he did and can only attribute Schuyler's survival to "providence" and Schuyler's toughness of body and mind. He said Schuyler's training in athletics prepared him for tolerance to pain and endurance. "If he didn't have that background, I don't think he would've made it."

Earlier in the day, Ray Sanchez, cousin of Marquis Cooper, said his family has enlisted about a dozen watercraft or planes to continue the search the Coast Guard halted yesterday afternoon.

His family sought "only experienced" pilots or boaters to help, he said.

"No amateurs," he said. "We don't want anyone getting hurt."

Three boats had departed John's Pass this morning with three more preparing to leave this afternoon.

Coast Guard Capt. Timothy Close discouraged amateur searches in a Tuesday news conference to reduce the possibility of "any new search and rescue missions."

Sanchez said the Coast Guard provided coordinates of the debris and the site of the capsized 21-foot Everglades boat that Cooper, Smith, Bleakley, and Schuyler took into the gulf on Saturday morning.

Sanchez said he was surprised by the support, but added, "we would do it if the roles were reversed. We're more thankful than anything. We know there's a lot of good people out there."

Sanchez said the search would continue, "until my cousin comes home."

Among the flotilla was the 75-foot Florida Fisherman, one of four craft to embark from Hubbard's Marina in John's Pass, using information from the Coast Guard to zig-zag an area 35 miles southwest of St. Petersburg. Capt. Mark Hubbard said three other recreational boats left John's Pass with friends of the Cooper family aboard. Hubbard volunteered the use of his vessel, but the Cooper family paid about $800 for his fuel.

Hubbard said he and his shipmates were inspired to join the search in memory of late former first mate Mike Costello.

Capt. Marti Heath coordinated the search grid based on the "set and drift" method.

"We go at a slow speed with a lot of hands on-board to watch," she said.

Hubbard said the Florida Fisherman would search just past sunrise.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission dispatched a boat at 7:30 a.m. today to retrieve the capsized craft. A spokesman for the agency also urged boaters not to attempt their own search and rescue mission.

The Coast Guard found the overturned vessel, with Schuyler atop it, around noon Monday 38 miles west of Egmont Key and attached a beacon. It was not anchored. The search for the other three men was called off at sunset Tuesday.

Gary Morse, public information officer for the commission, said the craft will be righted, pumped out and towed to an undetermined location in Pinellas County. He could not give a timetable for the retrieval until the recovery team assessed onsite conditions (currently 2- to 4-foot seas, he said). Morse said at 11 a.m. that the recovery team was "off-shore and incommunicado."

Morse also strongly advised amateurs not to try to find the missing men.

"If you're not trained in this type of recovery or search, you could be getting out there in conditions that could cause you to become an accident victim, too. We are cautioning people that this is not a good idea,'' Morse said.

Nick Schuyler's condition improves; private search launched for three missing boaters 03/04/09 [Last modified: Thursday, March 5, 2009 9:03am]
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