Bridging past and present
By Kerry Klecic
Concerned family, friends and coaches await ongoing Coast Guard rescue efforts to find former USF tight end William Bleakley and two former Tampa Bay Buccaneers who remain missing in the Gulf of Mexico after disappearing on a fishing trip.
Former USF walk-on defensive end Nick Schuyler was found by a Coast Guard cutter about 40 miles west of Tampa Bay around noon Monday, wearing a lifejacket and clinging to the 21-foot Everglades 210cc boat the four men took on the trip. He was airlifted to Tampa General Hospital, where he is in serious condition but expected to survive.
Along with Bleakley, Oakland Raiders linebacker Marquis Cooper and free-agent defensive lineman Corey Smith are also missing.
THE SEARCH EFFORT
Coast Guard Captain Timothy Close said the search area is now “significantly smaller” after Schuyler’s rescue, but remains complex because of tough weather and ocean conditions.
Bleakley’s father, Robert, said the family is very concerned about the chances of finding the remaining men away from the boat, as they face 60-degree water temperatures and waves as high as 10 feet.
“They’re trying to find three people in a very big area of water now, and those people are probably not on the surface anymore, and it’s almost impossible to find them underwater,” he said. “I don’t think they’re going to find anyone else alive. That’s something that weighs heavy on my heart right now.”
The families, however, continue to receive hour-by-hour updates from the Coast Guard on search efforts.
Close said the Coast Guard uses four fixed-wing aircrews, two HH-60 Jayhawk helicopters and three Coast Guard cutters, provided by six different sectors in the search. He also said crews use infrared and night-vision goggles to detect humans throughout the night.
“We now know we are looking for people in the water and not in the boat,” Close said. “We’re doing more search and rescue planning in that smaller area very hard. As soon as we saw the boat — and someone sitting on it — we sent aircraft to search the surrounding area.”
The National Weather Service (NWS) was predicting temperatures below 40 degrees and winds between 5 and 10 mph Monday night. It predicts wind chills could reach as low as 31 degrees early today.
Jennifer Collins, an assistant professor of geography, said today will be a crucial point in search efforts. Collins is a researcher of weather and climate who works closely with the National Weather Service on projects.
“The next few hours are really critical if the remaining three are in the water,” she said. “Hypothermia can set in when your body drops to just a few degrees under normal. I have seen estimates where the human body loses body heat 26 times faster in water than it does in air.”
She said a amall craft advisory was issued by the NWS, — an advisory issued for wind conditions of greater than 20 knots and waves seven feet or greater.
Today will be the third day the three men have been in the water.
Cooper’s cousin, Ray Sanchez, said the four were together “12-16 hours after the boat flipped on Saturday night.”
“An adult body is capable of survival from 45 minutes to three days after hypothermia sets in, so that is why I said it is imperative that we find them as soon as possible,” Collins said.
The Coast Guard isn’t sure exactly when the three others separated from the boat, Close said, and no distress signal was ever received.
Collins said it appears from media time lines that the boat overturned “ahead” of the cold front — and this may have increased the chances for survival for those on board.
“Certainly, the conditions along and behind the front — which were much later Saturday night and throughout Sunday — would have made the situation more difficult,” she said.
FRIENDS AND FAMILY AT HOME
Bleakley, 25, was a standout athlete at Crystal River High School in Citrus County, starring in football and baseball.
“Will was a very popular student here,” said Crystal River athletics director Tony Stukes. “He remains in everyone’s minds and prayers. He was an outstanding athlete for us, and an honors student. He was popular with his peers — and still is that way.”
Bleakley walked on at USF and eventually earned a scholarship, lettering in 2005, 2006 and 2007. He and Schuyler both helped the Bulls win their first-ever bowl game, a 24-7 victory in the Papajohn’s.com Bowl.
“I want to thank the University of South Florida for its support,” Robert Bleakley said. “(USF) Coach Jim Leavitt called me last night. He was very good to my son in giving him a scholarship.”
Leavitt said in a statement Monday that the entire program is watching the situation closely.
“After receiving the good news about Nick, our emotions have been tempered by the fact that three individuals are yet to be rescued,” he said. “We continue to pray for everyone involved, especially the families, and wish speed and safety to the Florida Coast Guard and local authorities that continue the search.”
Former USF quarterback Grant Gregory is a friend of Bleakley. The two played together after Gregory transferred from Indiana in 2004. Gregory said Monday was a bittersweet day for friends.
“Obviously, we’re happy that Schuyler was found, but at the same time we’re sad that they haven’t found the others,” he said. “We’re praying and hoping that they will be found.”
In 2006, Bleakley played in 13 games and averaged 11.1 yards per catch. Former USF defensive back Jeremy Burnett, who was a senior that year, said he is close to Bleakley.
“Will is a very outgoing person, and he likes doing things like fishing,” he said. “I know he’s real tough and we’re hoping he’s OK.”
Nick Schuyler’s mother, Marsha, received the news by phone that her son had been rescued by the Coast Guard.
“I passed out,” Marsha said. “I went down. You couldn’t ask for a better ending for us.”
At the hospital, she said her son told her, “‘Mom, I kept saying you’re not going to go to my funeral.’ That’s what kept him hanging on.”
Schuyler was airlifted to Tampa General Hospital at 1:18 p.m. Schuyler’s father, Stuart, said his son was dehydrated and heavily medicated, with bumps and bruises on his body, but had a near-normal temperature.
“You watch all of these other children missing for weeks and weeks, and you say, ‘Oh, these poor people.’ Until you really go through it, you can’t explain it,” he said.
One of Schuyler’s closest football friends, Richard Clebert, said he had no idea until this morning that Nick was one of the men missing until he received a call from his wife telling him the news.
“It hit me because not even one month ago, I was working out with Nick,” he said. “When I found out, I thought I’d never be able to talk to him again. But I thought if they were going to find anyone, the first one they’d find would be Nick.”
Schuyler’s family said their thoughts and prayers remain with the remaining three men.