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Family Hopes To Avoid Future Tragedies With New Initiative At Utah Lake

PROVO, Utah — Two teens drowned after getting caught in a surprise storm on Utah Lake earlier this summer. Their families have now partnered with the Utah Lake Commission for a life jacket drive as part of a new initiative they hope will prevent future tragedies.

“It’s been extremely difficult still,” said Santiago Hernandez, father of Sophia Hernandez.

It has been nearly five months since 18-year-old Priscilla Bienkowski and 17-year-old Sophia Hernandez lost their lives.

“You just have this massive whole in your heart, and you just have to learn to live with it,” said Priscilla’s sister, Stephanie Cowles.

Family members said they’re constantly flooded with memories.

“A lot of things do remind us of her,” said Santiago. “The kids around, where she used to work at — anything that we would see, eat, feel, touch — it just reminds us of her.”

Those memories are especially vivid on the waters of Utah Lake where the teens were swept away by an unexpected storm.

“I don’t think that you can ever recover from something like that,” said Stephanie.

But the teens’ families have used their pain as a driving force for good.

“We want everybody to be safe out there,” said Santiago. “We don’t want this to happen to anybody.”

After the teens’ bodies were found, their families decided they wanted to do something to help.

Priscilla’s older sister, Stephanie, came up with the concept of a life jacket station after hearing that many teens who go on the lake don’t wear them because they consider them expensive.

“The cost of a life jacket for the cost of a life, there is no comparison,” Cowles said.

The families have now teamed up with the Utah Lake Commission to support a life jacket drive.

“Nationally, as much as 80 percent of boating related fatalities — according to the Utah State Parks — could’ve been prevented if someone was wearing a life jacket.” said Utah Lake Commission member Sam Braegger. “As Priscilla’s family said, the idea is ‘Take a jacket to save your life, and leave one to save another.’”

“That hit home because I truly believe that if the girls were wearing life jackets, they could’ve been found,” said Stephanie.

People can drop off new or lightly-used life jackets at the drive, which runs from Sept. 30 — Oct. 7.

“We decided to do it at the end of the season because people may no longer be in need of their jackets or looking to replace them for next year,” Braegger said.

Life jackets can be dropped off at these six locations:

  • American Fork Marina
  • Lindon Marina
  • Orem City Offices
  • Provo Recreation Center
  • Saratoga Springs Marina
  • Utah Lake State Park

The Commission will also be accepting monetary donations and volunteers interested in helping install the life jacket racks. More information can be found at the Commission’s website.

With the growing popularity of Utah Lake among teens, the goal was to set up loaner stations all around the lake, including the Knolls area where the girls set off.

“We want to be here for whenever anything is needed,” said Maria Hernandez, Sophia’s mom.

The Hernandez and Bienkowski families said it’s how they want to remember their daughters.

“This will be a great calling for everyone for us to do this project,” said Santiago.

“I just really hope it helps,” said Stephanie. “If it can help one person, it will make it all worth it.”

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