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August 5, 2021

Life jacket loaner stations to pop up at Utah Lake

Two families are coming together to provide life jackets at Utah Lake after their loved ones died on the lake. (Aubrey Shafer, KSL TV)

UTAH COUNTY — Tragedy brought two families together in 2020 after they lost their daughters on Utah Lake. Now, the families said they want to prevent future drownings with life jacket stations around the lake.

“We’re going to know each other for the rest of our lives, I think, we’re connected in that way,” said Maria Hernandez, Sophia’s mother.

Teenage friends Sophia and Priscilla drowned on Utah Lake in May 2020.

“Every day, it’s not the same. Our lives totally changed forever,” said Santiago Hernandez, Sophia’s father.

Hope has kept the families afloat as they work through the healing process.

“I feel that I definitely needed good news like this today,” said Stephanie Cowles, Priscilla’s sister.

The families of Sophia Hernandez and Priscilla Bienkowski learned on Thursday that The Utah Lake Commission’s Governing Board has secured funding for seven loaner life jacket stations to be placed around Utah Lake.

“It’s really comforting because I can’t think of a better way to honor their lives,” said Cowles.

The announcement comes on the heels of seven other drownings reported at three major bodies of water along the Wasatch Front since May 15.

Seven drownings in three bodies of water:

  • May 15 — Pineview Reservoir, a 61-year-old man
  • May 15 — Utah Lake, Knolls area; two brothers — Jorge Anica, 33, and Victor Manuel Anica, 21
  • June 17 — Deer Creek State Park, 17-year-old Fernando Arredondo
  • June 20 — Deer Creek State Park; husband and wife from Chandler, Arizona —David McMillan, 72, and Catherine McMillan, 59
  • June 20 — Pineview Reservoir — 37-year-old father drowned trying to reach his son

That’s why the girls’ families said the news of the life jacket stations couldn’t come at a better time.

“The life jackets, the racks — it’s an amazing step for us and hopefully for everyone,” said Santiago.

The Commission told KSL-TV they have the green light to start building at two locations, which include the American Fork Boat Harbor and the Lindon Beach Marina.

The rest of the agreements with the respective partner cities were expected to come in the next few weeks. Those locations include Vineyard Beach, Mill Race, and the Knolls area where the teenage friends set off last May.

There’s also an existing station at the Saratoga Springs City Marina which will have some improvements and additions made in honor of the teens.

According to the Commission, once all the approvals come in, they can start accepting bidding proposals to start building.

The stations could be up by the end of summer.

“Their plans are to build them all at the same time,” said Maria.

Sam Braegger, outreach coordinator with the Commission, said each of the life jacket stations will have a plaque in honor of the teens, which were donated by Wilkinson’s Trophy of Provo.

Braegger said the stations will allow those visiting the lake to borrow a life jacket, which can be returned at the end of the day.

Even if families visiting Utah Lake don’t need a life jacket, the families hoped the stations will serve as a reminder to make water safety a priority.

“I think this project helped us cope in a way and look for a positive outlet in our grief,” said Cowles.

“If we save one life, it will be amazing,” said Maria.

That’s how the families said they hope to honor their daughters.

“Leave it up to them to go out with a bang,” said Cowles. “They were so powerful.”

The girls’ families also wanted to raise awareness about the Windy Lookout App designed for Utah Lake goers.

Click here for more information on the Life Jacket Project and how you can help.

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