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Boater's survival called 'providence'

TAMPA — As Coast Guard rescuers closed in on Nick Schuyler, hunched over the propeller of a capsized boat, he didn't scream. He didn't gesture.

He just looked and waited.

Only he could tell what became of his three friends now lost in a cold, violent sea. Only he knew how they spent their final moments together.

More details of his story began to trickle out of his hospital room Wednesday, triggering different emotional reactions among the families of the lost men.

One father refuses to believe his son gave up, removed his life vest and drifted away. He is spearheading a private search and rescue mission that continues today.

Another learned from Schuyler that his son was held until he died. That father could finally grieve, he said.

Though the sole survivor has uttered his story to only a trusted few, everyone is hanging onto his words.

• • •

The 24 year-old spoke with Will Bleakley's father at 7:30 a.m. Wednesday.

"I wish I was talking to my son instead," Bob Bleakley told him. Schuyler responded, "I know how you feel. …"

The two men talked about 25-year-old Will for five minutes.

"If Will was not there on the boat, I would not have made it," Schuyler told the father.

The others — former Buccaneers Marquis Cooper, 26, and Corey Smith, 29 — had died much earlier, he told the father. Their bodies gave out, Schuyler said.

So for 24 hours, the two former University of South Florida teammates sat alone.

They spoke of dying. They made promises. Bleakley told Schuyler to apologize to his parents for getting into this situation.

His friend got sick, Schuyler said. He was vomiting, becoming delusional. Then, nothing.

Schuyler said he gave his friend CPR, without success.

Bob Bleakley took it all in. He felt relief.

On Tuesday, the Coast Guard had told him his son saw a light in the distance and swam toward it to find help. Crazy, that sounded.

"No, no," Bleakley now said. "He did everything he was supposed to."

He trusts Schuyler's newer account, Bob Bleakley said. It sounds foolish, but he's relieved to know his son died. His family could now plan a memorial.

He could now cry.

• • •

But in Odessa, another father respectfully rejected what Schuyler told the Coast Guard, that Marquis Cooper removed his life vest and drifted away.

"I raised the kid. I lived with the kid. That's not his character," Bruce Cooper said. "He has so much to live for … that 3-year-old daughter inside his home is the center of his life."

"In my heart of hearts," the father said, "I just really believe that he's out there somewhere, just waiting to be found."

The family has enlisted a volunteer fleet of experienced boaters and pilots. A dozen search crafts combed the sea Wednesday and will do so again today. The Coast Guard cautioned against amateurs joining in the search.

Charter boat owner Clay Eavenson recalled a conversation he had with Cooper last week. They were fishing in New Port Richey when Cooper invited him to join him and his friends on Saturday.

Eavenson couldn't make it, but he asked about Cooper's boat and if he had an emergency position-indicating radio beacon, known as an EPIRB.

Cooper didn't know what that was.

It transmits GPS and radio signals rescuers can use to find craft in distress, Eavenson told him. They cost as little as a few hundred dollars. He urged Cooper to buy one.

Cooper said he would. If he had, the boat would have sent a signal once it capsized Saturday.

• • •

"Providence" is how Dr. Mark Rumbak described the fact that Schuyler was alive Wednesday morning at Tampa General Hospital, spending time with his girlfriend, craving pasta, anticipating his first attempts at walking.

Most people would have died, Rumbak said.

When Schuyler's was plucked from the water, his body temperature was 89 and he had moderate hypothermia.

Rumbak has no doubt that Schuyler's athletics helped him survive. "If he didn't have that background, I don't think he would've made it."

Schuyler didn't know it then, but he spent his entire life training to endure those two days. His friends call him Sky, because of his last name. And because his catchphrase is "The sky is the limit."

His former teammate Richard Clebert, who owns some of USF's bench-press records, worked out with him less than a month ago at LA Fitness, where Schuyler works as a personal trainer.

"I'm the strongest guy in the weight room, and I hurt my back working out with him," Clebert said. "He completely destroyed me."

Clebert, who played defensive tackle alongside Schuyler in 2006, said Schuyler was respected for working out every day and eating right.

When Clebert learned Schuyler was lost at sea, he was so sure about his physical and mental toughness that he text-messaged him:

You need to get your a-- back home now.

Schuyler told his mother he thought of her as he held on.

The rescuing Coast Guard crew of the Tornado on Wednesday described being in the "right place at the right time" when they spotted Schuyler in his orange vest, as the white boat bottom blended in with whitecaps amid 6-foot waves.

They loaded him into their vessel. They gave him dry clothes.

Chief Petty Officer Mike Briner recalled Schuyler kept saying: "I am cold."

He arrived at the hospital confused, with trauma to his muscles, knees, ankles and chest from repeatedly falling off the boat and being tossed against it.

His muscles are damaged, Rumbak said. His legs, swollen. His platelet count is low. He is expected to remain in intensive care for the next couple of days.

Still, the doctor described Schuyler's condition as "good" and his mind as "sharp." He says that his recollections appear to be clear and believable.

Rumbak says Schuyler has declined psychological help and is not exhibiting signs of posttraumatic stress disorder.

But he doesn't think Schuyler has processed the enormity of what happened.

Times staff writers Greg Auman, Kameel Stanley and Rodney Thrash contributed to this report. Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@sptimes.com.

Boater's survival called 'providence' 03/04/09 [Last modified: Saturday, March 7, 2009 9:07am]
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