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Sole survivor is still haunted by his ordeal

In his recently released book, Nick Schuyler recounts the tragedy that claimed the lives of his three friends

The lone survivor of the highly publicized February 2009 Gulf of Mexico boating accident has written a book about the tragedy, giving an hour-by-hour description of his fight to live - and the deaths of his three friends.

The majority of Schuyler's book focuses on the deaths of his friends. Soundings covered the capsize and then the findings of the investigation in the May (above) and June 2009 issues.

"Four of us went into the water, and I was the only one who came out. Why me?" Nick Schuyler asks in the prologue of "Not Without Hope," co-authored by New York Times sportswriter Jere Longman. "My friends were just as big and strong and tough and brave. Two of them, Marquis Cooper and Corey Smith, played in the National Football League. Will Bleakley, my best friend, had been a tight end in college. ... Why did I make it when they did not? It haunts me."

The fishing trip turned tragic when the foursome tried to use the boat's engine to free their fouled anchor. As the wind and seas built, they called it quits after bottom fishing Feb. 28, 2009, more than 50 miles off Clearwater, Fla. Bleakley, 25, suggested they remove the anchor rode from the bow of the 20-foot, 9-inch Everglades center console, tie it to the stern and use the 200-hp Yamaha to yank the hook free. Cooper, 26, the boat's owner and operator, had just lost an anchor the previous weekend when it became fouled on the bottom. He agreed to the plan.

He throttled forward, but the anchor stayed put. With the rode tied to the port-side transom U-bolt, the stern was pulled down, the cockpit flooded, and the deep-vee boat rolled over on its port side. The men had no EPIRB on board. Water temperature was in the low 60s.

The State of Florida's month-long investigation cited improper anchoring, operator inexperience and careless/ reckless operation as the causes of the accident.

In the 237-page book, which became available March 2, the anniversary of his rescue, Schuyler refutes earlier rumors that Cooper simply gave up, removed his life jacket and drowned, and that Bleakley drowned when he swam toward a light he thought was land. Schuyler also made television appearances on "Oprah," "Larry King Live" and "The Today Show" in an effort to set the record straight.

But Cooper's wife, Rebekah, is unhappy about the book's depiction of her husband as an inexperienced boater. In a written statement, she says Schuyler has "greatly exaggerated" his ties to Marquis, and his family and is profiting from the loss of life.

In the book, Schuyler writes that Cooper apologizes to his friends:

" 'I'm so sorry, you guys,' " Marquis said after about a half hour in the water.' He must have said it 10 times. I think he felt it was his fault because he was the captain. He was in charge."

Schuyler says Bleakley apologizes several times for suggesting that they tie the anchor line to the stern: " 'I'm so stupid,' " he would say. " 'I can't believe I did that.' "

Through Coast Guard Capt. Timothy Close, commanding officer of Sector St. Petersburg, "Not Without Hope" addresses the lack of an EPIRB on Cooper's boat: " 'If they had one, there wouldn't have been search, there would have been rescue,' " Close is quoted as saying. " 'I'll never say these guys were stupid. They were college-educated, intelligent guys. They were inexperienced boaters, and they were in an element they weren't prepared for.' "

While Schuyler, a personal trainer, does write about his background and relationships with the others, the majority of the book recounts how he watched his companions die - first Cooper, then Smith, then Bleakley - two of them in his arms.

As hypothermia set in, Cooper began to slur his speech and he became confused and violent at times before finally losing consciousness, according to the survivor. "Marquis was just laying across me, not moving," Schuyler writes. "Will checked him ... he shook his head. He couldn't find a pulse. 'I don't know, man,' Will said. 'I don't think he's here. I think he's gone.' "

Smith became violent due to hypothermia, trying to pull the other men from the boat as he spewed profanity, according to Schuyler's book. Minutes after Schuyler let go of Cooper's body, Smith began trying to remove his own life jacket and jump away from the boat. Schuyler and Bleakley fought to keep his PFD on and hold him to the boat.

"He looked right into my eyes and said, 'F - - - you - I'm a kill you!' " writes Schuyler. "His eyes were wild. That wasn't Corey. I didn't take it personally."

Smith got away from them and jumped off the boat. He ripped off the PFD, dove down into the water and never resurfaced, according to Schuyler's account. "He kicked straight down until we couldn't see him anymore," writes Schuyler. "I screamed, 'Corey, no, no, no, please!' "

Bleakley holds on through the next day, even diving under the boat several times and finding a bottle of Gatorade and pretzels. But he tells Schuyler he won't make it through another night and begins "deteriorating before my eyes," writes Schuyler. He wonders why his friend is getting worse and he is not. But Schuyler answers his own question. "I guess I knew why. He had a lot less clothing on. He had gone under the boat a bunch of times. I knew that had completely exhausted him."

Bleakley fails to survive the night, perishing as Schuyler held him chest to chest in the water.

Schuyler may have survived because he got seasick on the ride out to the fishing grounds and put on additional clothing, which he kept on through the ordeal. Cooper and Bleakley changed out of their clothes to swim under the boat. "Marquis wore only a life jacket and his bathing suit. I had on my sweatshirt, orange jacket, sweat pants, skull cap and gloves. Corey was still wearing his black wind jacket and wind pants. Will was down to his T-shirt and trunks."

Schuyler's guilt-ridden language continues throughout the book. He writes about crying hysterically at Bleakley's memorial, and he questions his actions again: "Could I have done something different? Should I have given my jacket to him for a while? ... Should I have helped him go underneath the boat?"

Schuyler writes that he should not be called a hero because he failed to save any of his friends. But after reading the book, readers will find it hard not to admire his survival skills.

This article originally appeared in the May 2010 issue.