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Nick Schuyler's book, 'Not Without Hope,' goes on sale one year after fatal trip

dkoehn@tampatrib.com
Published:   |   Updated: March 22, 2013 at 08:43 AM
TAMPA -

The image was incredible.

One man in a bright orange jacket, hunched alone on the hull of a boat, bobbing in the vastness of the Gulf of Mexico. Personal trainer Nick Schuyler of Tampa was the only survivor of a disastrous fishing trip that had set out 40 hours earlier with four seemingly invincible athletes.

"Not Without Hope," a book that will be available Tuesday - the one-year anniversary of his rescue - offers harrowing details of the stormy ordeal and Schuyler's struggles with the guilt of being the only one who lived.

"Why me?" he asks. "I am no hero. Maybe if I had brought my friends back with me... But I didn't. I tried; I gave it everything I had, but I couldn't."

Almost before the U.S. Coast Guard could pull him from the chilly waters, rumors swirled. Were the men drunk? Did they fight over the safest spot out of the water, the spot Schuyler occupied when he was found, clinging to the upside-down motor and propeller?

The dead were Oakland Raiders linebacker Marquis Cooper, 26, and Detroit Lions defensive end Corey Smith, 29 - both former Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The third was Will Bleakley, 25, Schuyler's best friend and former University of South Florida football teammate, also a man in top physical shape.

Schuyler has spoken little of the events of that day; his only media interview was one in August with Bryant Gumbel of HBO's "Real Sports."

In the book, co-written by New York Times sportswriter Jere' Longman, Schuyler says he hopes to clear up misconceptions about the events.

At first, he says, he had to stifle laughter when Cooper's 21-foot fishing boat flipped after the men tried to gun the motor to dislodge a stuck anchor and instead found themselves pitched into the water. But soon, they realized their predicament was grave.

The water was cold and the waves churned as a storm approached. Cell phones didn't work. The four, who could bench press hundreds of pounds among them, could not right the boat. No one had on a life jacket, although Bleakley would swim beneath the boat to retrieve them.

"At first, it was 'Oh, my God, is this really happening?' " Schuyler writes. "Now it was, "Oh my God, is this it?"

Hypothermia, which can occur in chilly water even when outdoor temperatures are fairly warm, began to take a toll on the men. Cooper, who had shucked some clothing in attempts to dive for supplies, was the first to feel the effects, followed quickly by Smith.

The condition can cause delusional and violent behavior.

Schuyler describes attempts to keep the men clinging to the boat, but all three eventually were overcome by the cold. Accounts immediately after the tragedy described how Smith took off his life jacket and swam away. Paradoxically, hypothermia can cause people to feel as if they are hot, and its victims often remove their clothing shortly before death.

At first, the men huddled like "puppies" to conserve body heat, but eventually as hypothermia set in, Cooper and Smith fought Schuyler's efforts to help them. A delusional Smith became verbally abusive.
"It wasn't Corey. It was like evil Corey, like Corey's demon," Schuyler writes. Smith's final words to Schuyler: "I'm a kill you."

Bleakley lasted longer. But by sundown of the second night he, too, no longer believed he would make it. He died about 18 hours before Schuyler was rescued.

Schuyler credits his survival to wearing extra layers of clothing, which he had donned because he was feeling seasick before the accident. He had had a few beers, but had thrown them up.

He said Bleakley and Cooper had been drinking beer, but Smith did not drink.

None of the bodies has been found.

Schuyler says he has not sought counseling since the tragedy, but got a tattoo with the three men's initials on a large cross on his arm. He doesn't sleep well. He won't go back in the waters of the Gulf.

He still works as a personal trainer in Tampa, using physical activity as a way to ease the misery.
Friends tell him to forget it.

"I can't," he writes. "I wish it were that easy. I lost three friends, including my best friend ... Every time I look at the water, I get the same tormented feelings: My friends are still in there, and they'll always be in there."


Reporter Donna Koehn can be reached at (813) 259-8264.

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