Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Clues found on land helped Coast Guard search gulf for missing players

Nick Schuyler is rescued from a capsized boat March 2, two days after he and three others were reported missing. Will Bleakley, Marquis Cooper and Corey Smith are presumed lost at sea.

U.S. Coast Guard

Nick Schuyler is rescued from a capsized boat March 2, two days after he and three others were reported missing. Will Bleakley, Marquis Cooper and Corey Smith are presumed lost at sea.

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."

Clues found on land helped Coast Guard search gulf for missing players 04/03/09 [Last modified: Monday, April 6, 2009 8:58am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Trump, seething about attorney general, speculates about firing Sessions, sources say

    WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump has spoken with advisers about firing Attorney General Jeff Sessions, as he continues to rage against Sessions' decision to recuse himself from all matters related to the Russia investigation.

  2. John McCain to return to Senate for health care vote

    WASHINGTON — The Senate plans to vote Tuesday to try to advance a sweeping rewrite of the nation's health-care laws with the last-minute arrival of Sen. John McCain — but tough talk from President Donald Trump won no new public support from skeptical GOP senators for the flagging effort that all but …

  3. Last orca calf born in captivity at a SeaWorld park dies

    Tourism

    ORLANDO — The last killer whale born in captivity under SeaWorld's former orca-breeding program died Monday at the company's San Antonio, Texas, park, SeaWorld said.

    Thet orca Takara helps guide her newborn, Kyara, to the water's surface at SeaWorld San Antonio in San Antonio, Texas, in April. Kyara was the final killer whale born under SeaWorld's former orca-breeding program. The Orlando-based company says 3-month-old Kyara died Monday. [Chris Gotshall/SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment via AP]
  4. Blake Snell steps up, but Rays lose to Orioles anyway (w/video)

    The Heater

    ST. PETERSBURG — Blake Snell stepped up when he had to Monday and delivered an impressive career-high seven-plus innings for the Rays. That it wasn't enough in what ended up a 5-0 loss to the Orioles that was their season-high fifth straight is symptomatic of the funk they are in right now.

    Tampa Bay Rays shortstop Tim Beckham (1) after being doubled off first on the liner by shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria (11) in to end the seventh inning of the game between the Baltimore Orioles and the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. on Monday, July 24, 2017.
  5. A historic Tampa family saves a historic Tampa home built by an ancestor

    Human Interest

    The Knight family has replaced their roof and people are celebrating.

    The Peter O. Knight historical cottage, located in Tampa's Hyde Park neighborhood, is seen Thursday, July 20, 2017. The cottage fell into disrepair in recent years, but the Knight family stepped up with financial support to help stabilize the structure.