CLEARWATER — Hope was all but lost as the Coast Guard and other assisting agencies combed 16,000 square miles of the Gulf of Mexico, looking for four men who disappeared on a fishing trip.
Then, a small miracle.
One of the men, 24-year-old Nick Schuyler of Tampa, was found perched atop an overturned boat about 38 miles west of Tampa Bay shortly after noon today.
The air was a bitter 60 degrees, the waves were 7 to 9 feet, but he was alive. He was rescued and airlifted to Tampa General Hospital, where he was in serious condition but expected to survive.
The other three men, former Tampa Bay Buccaneers Marquis Cooper and Corey Smith and former University of South player Will Bleakley, have not been found.
Family members were told the four clung to their overturned 21-foot Everglades fishing boat for 12 to 16 hours Saturday night and early Sunday before three slipped away. The Coast Guard is continuing to search for Cooper, Smith and Bleakley.
But with every hour that passed after the boat was found, it became harder for the friends and family to believe the missing men were still alive.
"Keep praying," said Ray Sanchez, Cooper's cousin who spent most of the day at the Clearwater ramp and Coast Guard headquarters in St. Pete. "We have three more to go."
Marsha Schuyler said she passed out when she learned her son was alive. He later said he survived by telling himself she was not going to go to his funeral, "that's what kept him hanging on,'' she said.
He was dehydrated, had a few cuts and bruises and was heavily medicated after checking in at Tampa General.
Coast Guard officials are still trying to piece together what happened after the four men set out early Saturday morning.
Chris Mayes, 19, whose family owns Jaxson's Bait House near the boat ramp, recalled that people were "itching to get out" on the first day of perfect weekend weather of the new year.
By 6 a.m., all of the boat ramps were booked and people were complaining about the crowded parking lot, Mayes said. But by 2 p.m., boaters were scrambling to get back, spooked by the winds and choppy waters.
At an offshore location about 50 miles west of the Tampa Bay area on Saturday afternoon, waves were 4 to 6 feet and "the winds were around 10 to 15 knots and some gusts up to 20 knots, which still makes it uncomfortable for most boaters," National Weather Service meteorologist Todd Barron said.
But the weather turned awful late Saturday and early Sunday as a front passed through.
"Waves increased from 4 to 6 feet to about 10 to 15," Barron said. By about 7 a.m. Sunday the offshore winds "increased to 30 to 40 knots."
With grouper and snapper season closed, officials think the four friends may have gone amberjack fishing.
During the winter months, these open-ocean predators are typically 20 to 50 miles offshore.
"Marquis likes to fish for A.J.s," said Bill Hamilton, who operates Reel Deal charters out of the Clearwater Marina. "I had taken him fishing a few times and he had e-mailed me a while back looking for some numbers."
Hamilton said he gave cooper GPS coordinates for several well-known fishing spots, including the location of the natural gas pipeline and some deep-water springs, from 15 to 50 miles offshore.
Cooper and his friends were aboard an Everglades 211 CC, a small, deep-vee offshore boat that he purchased in 2005 from Sun Ray Marine in Largo.
"It is a good offshore boat, virtually unsinklable," said the dealership's owner, Robert Tronio. "In 5 to 7 foot seas, the size could be an issue."
Tronio said Cooper like to run far offshore in search of fish. "He told us that he liked to bring along extra fuel to extend his range," Tronio said.
By sundown Saturday, the ramp parking lot was empty except for a lone GMC truck, belonging to Cooper. That's the truck the missing four boaters arrived in. A one-day parking pass was still on the windshield Sunday morning.
Coast Guard spokeswoman Sondra-Kay Kneen said the search will carry on throughout the night, and she could not say if and when the search would end. Vessels and planes searching the gulf have covered a search area that stretches from Cedar Key in Levy County to Boca Grande in Lee County.
Word of the men's disappearance spread quickly throughout the Tampa Bay area, and especially among those who regularly frequent the same waters.
Mike Miller owns a diving charter business and was also out in the Gulf on Saturday. He wondered how the men could have stayed in the water, knowing Saturday's weather forecast of strong winds from the arriving cold front.
"Anything over 10 knots, that's really dicey," Miller said. "The forecast Friday night I saw said 10 to 20 knots, 4- to 6-foot seas. So if just one of those four guys would have read the report, they would have said, 'We're not going 50 miles offshore in a 20-foot boat.' "
Meanwhile, friends and family of the missing men waited for updates.
Bleakley, 25, grew up in Citrus County and played football at Crystal River High School. The school's faculty members are being kept abreast of the situation via e-mail and hoping for good news.
"Everyone is sitting back and waiting for good news," athletic director Tony Stukes said. "Obviously, there is concern for Will's safety, and concern for his family. It's a tight-knit community."
Bleakley, a 2002 graduate, was a standout baseball and football player. As a senior, he helped lead the school to the state baseball final four, which was played at Tampa's Legends Field.
Bleakley and 24-year-old Schuyler live in Tampa. Cooper, who turns 27 next week, is a linebacker with the Oakland Raiders, and 29-year-old Smith is a free agent defensive end who most recently played for the Detroit Lions. Both Cooper and Smith own homes in the Tampa Bay area.
Cooper owns the boat the men left on Saturday, and friends and family described him as an experienced boater who had life jackets and flares onboard.
The Lions and Raiders teams each released statements expressing concern for all of the boat's passengers.
"We are closely monitoring the situation and are in the process of gathering more information," a press release from the Raiders said. "Our thoughts and prayers go out to the passengers, their families and those involved in the search efforts."
National and local media outlets followed the story throughout the day. Confusing rumors repeatedly surfaced about the discovery of one or more other survivors. But after finding Schuyler, Coast Guard officials could only deliver the same news to families:
No sign of the others. But they're still looking.
Staff writers Alex Zayas, Terry Tomalin, Leonora LaPeter Anton, Keith Niebuhr and Curtis Krueger contributed to this report. Emily Nipps can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and (727) 893-8452.