ST. PETERSBURG — At sunset Tuesday, the U.S. Coast Guard suspended its search for three boaters missing in the Gulf of Mexico since Saturday, further dimming the hopes of their anxious families.
"We're extremely confident that if there were any survivors, we would have found them by now," said Capt. Timothy Close.
Two aircraft and three ships covered more than 20,000 square miles during the search, finding the capsized 21-foot Everglades fishing craft Monday along with one survivor, Nick Schuyler, 24, of Tampa, crouched atop the hull.
On Tuesday searchers found a life jacket and a cooler 16 miles away, but that was all.
Schuyler told Coast Guard investigators a strange story about the fate of the others, according to family members of two of the missing men. However, they said, given Schuyler's condition when rescued after two days on the sea in cold weather, he may have been delusional.
Schuyler told investigators that about two to four hours after their boat flipped in rough seas, one of the two National Football League players on board gave up hope and let himself be swept away, according to relatives briefed by the Coast Guard.
A few hours later, the second one did the same.
"We were told that Nick said the two NFL players took their life jackets off and drifted out to sea," said Bob Bleakley, whose son Will, 25, a former University of South Florida football player, is also still missing.
With former Tampa Bay Buccaneers Marquis Cooper, 26, and Corey Smith, 29, gone, only Schuyler and Will Bleakley remained clinging to the boat.
Then, sometime early Monday, Will Bleakley thought he saw a light in the distance. He decided to take off his life jacket and swim to it, hoping to get help, Bob Bleakley said Schuyler told the investigators.
"I think he was delusional to think he could swim someplace," Bob Bleakley said.
But the thought that his son may have died trying to save someone else brought tears to his eyes. "He was my hero," said the elder Bleakley, who lives in Crystal River.
Ray Sanchez, a cousin of Cooper, who is a linebacker for the Oakland Raiders, said he was told the same story by Coast Guard officials. But like Bob Bleakley, he cautioned against taking Schuyler's word for what happened, given the circumstances.
"We're not 100 percent sure where his head was at," Sanchez said. "He'd been through a lot."
Schuyler was airlifted from the gulf about noon Monday and was in fair condition at Tampa General Hospital on Tuesday. He could not be reached for comment, and Coast Guard spokesmen said they could not comment on the specifics of their investigation.
Schuyler's father, Stuart, said late Tuesday that his son is "slowly improving. It's going to be a while. He's been through a lot there." He would not comment on anything else.
The four friends set out Saturday morning to fish for amberjack aboard an Everglades 211 CC, a small, deep-vee offshore boat that Cooper purchased in 2005 from Sun Ray Marine in Largo.
By 2 p.m., a gorgeous weekend day had turned nasty, with heavy gusts and 6-foot waves.
The men were anchored about 38 miles offshore Saturday afternoon when high waves flipped their boat, dumping them all in the frigid sea.
At the time, none was reportedly wearing a life vest. Bob Bleakley said Coast Guard officials told him that Schuyler credited Will Bleakley with doing all he could to help the others. He said he was told Bleakley dove under the capsized boat several times to retrieve life vests for everyone, along with bottles of water and jackets.
As the hours passed, the water's chill overwhelmed their bodies' ability to produce heat, and hypothermia set in. Symptoms can include a gradual loss of mental and physical abilities.
That could explain the kind of erratic behavior Schuyler described, said Susan Bleakley, Will Bleakley's aunt.
"Apparently when you have that, you're not thinking straight," she said.
Hopes for the missing men's rescue surged Monday when the Coast Guard found Schuyler, but then dwindled again Tuesday.
"We're still hoping for a miracle of all miracles, but we know the chances of Will being found alive are diminishing and getting close to zero," Bob Bleakley said. "We think he may be lost." Nevertheless, he said, the family had not started planning a funeral, contrary to some reports.
Close said the Division 7 Coast Guard, which is based in St. Petersburg, is among the most active and experienced stations in the nation for search-and-rescue missions. He said Coast Guard officials had heard that some people might be mounting what he called "amateur search efforts."
He cautioned well-meaning amateurs not to endanger themselves, saying the Coast Guard doesn't need to be called out on "any new search and rescue missions."
Times staff writers John Frank and Alexandra Zayas contributed to this report. Emily Nipps can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8452.