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Faces, solitary image linger from tragic boating accident

They stared at us all last week.

Whether they were on TV, Web sites or in newspapers, their faces have been impossible to forget.

Will Bleakley.

Marquis Cooper.

Corey Smith.

They could’ve been one of our own.

In a way they were.

Three guys in their 20s.

A fishing trip to the Gulf of Mexico.

Sounds like half of Manatee County.

Over the years I don’t know how many Saturday mornings I’ve cruised along the Palma Sola Causeway for a day at the beach, and glanced over admiringly — enviously, too — at all the trucks and trailers at the Kingfish Boat Ramp.

Sadly for the three and a buddy who was rescued, what started out as a beautiful trip out of Clearwater ultimately turned tragic.

Anchored 38 miles west of Egmont Key, Cooper’s 21-foot boat was flipped by six-foot waves kicked up by an approaching cold front, dumping the four of them into the Gulf’s windy, cold waters.

A terrible ordeal had begun.

For them.

For their families.

For those involved in the rescue.

Only one of the four, Nick Schuyler, 24, survived 46 hours in 63-degree water temperatures. He was found 35 miles west of Clearwater.

The other three men remain missing.

The Coast Guard ended its search Tuesday.

Private charter captains kept the vigil, even if only to recover the remains and give closure to the families.

That two of them — Cooper and Smith — were former Tampa Bay Buccaneers and are still NFL players gave their plight a higher profile nationally.

Although a football fan, I confess I didn’t recognize either of them.

Same for Bleakley, a former USF player.

Instead, I saw three young men not yet in their prime and had everything going for them.

They could’ve been any three guys I see around town — lifting at the gym on Cortez, sharing the next table at the restaurant off University Parkway, or walking along Old Main Street by the Manatee County government building.

Now they’re gone.

Glancing at their faces on a front page, I shake my head.

There’s another image I can’t get out of my mind, as well.

It’s the photo of Cooper’s solitary platinum GMC pickup truck with an empty boat trailer in the vacant parking lot at the Seminole boat ramp in Clearwater.

It reminds me of a trusty steed waiting for its rider.

A rider who’s never coming home.

Mannix About Manatee, by local columnist Vin Mannix,is about people and issues in Manatee County. Please call Vin Mannix at 745-7055, write him at Bradenton Herald, P.O. Box 921, Bradenton, Fla. 34206 or email him at vmannix@bradenton.com. Please include a phone number for verification.

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