UTAH LAKE (ABC4 News) – UPDATE: The bodies of Priscilla Bienkowski and Sophia Hernandez were found Thursday, May 14.
Priscilla Bienkowski’s mother said she loves being in the water, as evident by her activity Wednesday night with her friend and co-worker, Sophia Hernandez.
The two just met a few months ago while working together at Walmart, according to Bienkowski’s family members who spoke to ABC4 News Friday afternoon as they continued waiting for updates near the mobile command center at Lincoln Beach Park in Spanish Fork.
Bienkowski, 18, is from Saratoga Springs and Hernandez, 17, is from Eagle Mountain.
Bienkowski’s mother, Nancy Sepulveda said she had asked to go to Utah Lake multiple times and finally went after she bought an inflatable tube. She set out on Wednesday with Hernandez, shortly after winds created dangerous conditions in the water. They never returned home.
Investigators said a nearby fisherman heard one of the teenagers’ phone ring while left behind on shore and picked up, not knowing where the girls were. Shortly after, that’s when one of their parents called police.
“As a mother, of course you can think the worst. But I’m trying to be positive and trying to keep a level head because it’s not going to serve me or anyone to just lose it and lose my cool,” said Sepulveda.
Multiple agencies including Utah State Parks, Wasatch County, Washington County, and Utah Highway Patrol have assisted with search efforts from the air, water, and shore. But no substantial leads have led to the teenagers’ whereabouts. Officials don’t believe the two were wearing lifejackets.
“There was one area in particular where there were several things based on the side scan sonar hits that looked like they might be of interest but none of those panned out yesterday,” said Sgt. Spencer Cannon.
During a briefing into day 3 of the search Friday morning, Sgt. Cannon said conditions were much calmer than the were the days before. They expanded their search radius from 3.3 miles to 8.5 miles and sent UHP’s dive team underwater. However, they said the mission has not transitioned from a rescue to a recovery effort yet.
“We don’t like the word, ‘recovery,’ but we’re leaning that direction, simply because if the girls were someplace besides in the lake, we don’t have any reason to believe that they wouldn’t be in contact with family. This is extremely out of character for them,” he said. “As minutes go by, hope diminishes and all the evidence we have suggests they went into the lake. We have an eyewitness who saw them a short distance of where they entered.”
Bienkowski’s aunt, Sally Ramos flew in from New York where she works as a nurse. Knowing that physical touch is not recommended during the COVID-19 pandemic, she said she couldn’t help but give her sister a big hug once they were together.
“It’s been really difficult. Words cannot explain it. It’s out of our power. We really can’t do anything. We’re just waiting and that’s the hardest part is waiting and not knowing,” said Ramos.
Bienkowski is the youngest of five children, loves to sing, and just graduated from high school last year. Sepulveda said she has a close relationship to her daughter.
“I need to be strong for myself. I have other children and I have lots of family and I need to be strong for Priscilla because this is how she would want me to be,” she said. “Priscilla, if you see this message. I want to know to know that miracles do happen. Your family are all here and we’re just praying that we will see you again.”
She added, “I really appreciate all of the crews and I’m just really grateful that they’re here to assist people like us even though they don’t really know 100 percent of how we feel unless they go through it themselves. But that shows that they truly care.”
Sgt. Cannon said it is unclear when search efforts will be suspended, but they will continue operations until at least the end of Friday. Victim advocates have been brought in to talk to family about what to expect moving forward.
Community members are organizing a candlelight vigil for Priscilla and Sophia Saturday night at 8 p.m. near the area where the teens were last seen at the Knoll’s area of Utah Lake along SR-68 near mile marker 20.