The U.S. Coast Guard knew four men were lost at sea, in the vast Gulf of Mexico. They knew when they left, where they left from, how long they could survive — and not much else.
Where in the ninth-largest body of water in the world should rescuers start looking for two former Tampa Bay Buccaneers and their buddies? Where should commanders deploy helicopters and planes, ships and boats?
The found the answer on land: Old-fashioned detective work helped guide the high-tech search in the air and on the water.
Records obtained by the St. Petersburg Times show how the Coast Guard quickly gathered intelligence on the missing men.
They quizzed family and friends about the boaters' plans and experience.
They scanned GPS devices the boaters had used before for potential coordinates.
They checked cell phone records, credit card reports, even called NFL security.
That fateful Feb. 28 fishing trip cost three men their lives. Without the search on land, the fourth man — found days later in the water — might not have made it, either.
"You can't just go out there (and search)," said state Fish and Wildlife investigator James Manson. "It's a vast body of water. The first thing you do is try and find somebody who might know where they're going.
"You just don't want to go out there blind."
• • •
Former Buc Marquis Cooper, 26, owned the 21-foot Everglades boat that capsized. Corey Smith, 29, also played in the NFL. Will Bleakley, 25, played football at the University of South Florida.
All three died in the cold gulf waters, authorities say, more than 30 miles off Egmont Key.
Only former USF player Nick Schuyler survived. The Coast Guard found the 24-year-old on March 2 after he spent 42 hours in the water. He was sitting atop the overturned boat, suffering from hypothermia.
A Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission report detailed the errors that led to the boat overturning. The men tried gunning the engine to free a stuck anchor, only to have everyone end up in 62-degree waters.
The boat didn't have an emergency beacon that could have transmitted their location. Nor had they filed a "float plan" detailing their schedule and destination. Every boater should leave one behind with family or friends, the Coast Guard said.
"That's the best way we'll find them if something goes wrong," said Petty Officer Sondra-Kay Kneen.
So what could the Coast Guard do to find the lost men?
• • •
They learned from family members that Cooper "had little maritime experience," the documents say, and the other men had even less experience.
Sometimes the Coast Guard relied on police techniques: They faxed letters to cell phone carriers demanding access to the missing boaters' phone records and asked family members to check credit card records of the missing men.
But the best source of information was a steady stream of tips from family and friends.
A charter boat captain who fished with Cooper faxed over old e-mails detailing the NFL player's favorite spots.
"He must be fishing for (amberjack)," charter boat captain Bob Hamilton wrote. "(It's) what he loved to do."
The most crucial information came from Brian Miller, Cooper's friend. He had GPS coordinates from past fishing trips, which helped the Coast Guard narrow their search.
It helped the Coast Guard cutter Tornado find Schuyler at 11:46 a.m. on March 2.
The search for the remaining three men focused on that same area but was called off a day later. Their bodies have not been recovered.
In the end, the Coast Guard searched 20,000 square miles for the missing men. The entire Gulf of Mexico is more than 600,000 square miles.
From start to finish, records show the Coast Guard continued searching even as it gleaned new information about the men. Every new tip adjusted where a certain aircraft or ship searched. It went on like that for three days.
While every search is different, Petty Office Kneen said, every bit of information helps every search.
"When we're searching for boaters," she said, "knowing coordinates, knowing locations, knowing anything is definitely going to help.
"We can't search the entire gulf. But we can search a small area the size of Delaware."