Family proposes life jacket loaner station to honor drowning victims and save lives

Local News

UTAH COUNTY (ABC4 News) – More than two months after Priscilla Bienkowski and Sophia Hernandez drowned at Utah Lake, their families found a way to honor them and help save others from the same fate. They submitted a proposal to the Utah County Commission to build a life jacket loaner station near the area where they last entered the water.

“Priscilla was a very driven, young woman. She could literally make friends with anybody. She wanted to do everything and anything with how her life was planned out. She was kind, beautiful, and overall, an amazing young woman. That’s how I want her to be remembered,” said Bienkowski’s sister, Stephanie Cowles.

Back on May 6th, officials with the Utah County Sheriff’s Office said Bienkowski and Hernandez went floating with pool toys in Utah Lake when a storm came in with 50 mph winds. Both of the young women were not wearing life jackets.

“One of the challenges with Utah Lake is it’s a very large body of water and it’s susceptible to sudden windstorms since it’s such a large, flat surface area,” said Utah County Commissioner Nathan Ivie. “When a wind storm comes in, it creates some significant wave activity on the lake, which can capsize paddle boats or smaller crafts.”

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Their disappearance led to a eight-day search until crews subsequently found their bodies approximately eight miles from where they last entered the water. Cowles said it was the longest eight days of her life.

“It was the worst thing I’ve ever experienced in my life. I’ve never had so many different emotions go through me in a day at once and then for a consistent eight days,” she said. “Some days just felt like it was dragging and we weren’t getting much sleep. We would go to bed late and then wake up early to pass out flyers.”

Family members holding Priscilla Bienkowski’s photo

Cowles said during the time her family spent at Utah Lake, they met several people who shared similar experiences from losing their own loved ones or had close encounters at the lake.

“Utah Lake has a reputation of being unpredictable and dangerous. I lived in Utah for six years before moving away and I had no idea. I think a lot of people are not aware,” she said.

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Figuring out a way to channel their grief into something meaningful, Cowles and her family drafted a proposal to submit to the Utah County Commission to build a life jacket loaner station near the Knowles area. She told ABC4 News it was a way for them to memorialize both Bienkowski and Hernandez while providing a way for others to stay safe on the waters.

“We want people to be prepared. We would never wish this on anybody. The next young group of kids that go in that maybe one kid doesn’t have a life jacket, then it’ll be right there or if there’s that one person who’s like, ‘Oh. Maybe we should wear a life jacket’ and they don’t want to drive all the way back to the closest Walmart or Target, it can be right there for them to use,” said Cowles.

Example of life jacket loaner station

Commissioner Ivie expressed support for the proposal that was submitted during their work meeting earlier this month. He said the proposal will be reviewed by their legal team and once an agreement contract is drafted, the item will be placed on a meeting agenda in the near future for a vote.

“It’s very easy to get drowned out in the sorrow. But what an amazing testament to the quality of people in this group that they are willing to take this sad loss and turn it into something beautiful for the community. It will save lives in the future and we are so appreciative of them,” he said. “I think it will be more successful for this very reason because there is passion and drive behind it.”

Family members holding photos of Sophia Hernandez

Using leftover funds from a GoFundMe fundraiser and a donation from a partner at Primary Children’s Hospital’s “Hold Onto Dear Life Injury Prevention Program,” Cowles said her family would be willing to supply the life jackets and take on the responsibility of maintaining the loaner station.

“Although we live in Nevada, we have family that lives in and around Saratoga Springs that are willing to help. We’ve been in contact with Sophia’s family who have agreed to help in any way that is needed. Life jackets would be stored at the end of the season and put back in the spring,” said Cowles.

She added, “I think I’ll be healing for the rest of my life. I don’t think the pain will ever go away, to be honest. But we’re going to focus on the main purpose of the loaner station, which is to save lives.”

Rosie Nguyen is an award-winning journalist who joined the ABC4 News team as a reporter in January 2018. In September 2020, she embarked on a new journey as the anchor for the CW30 News at 7 p.m. Although she’s not out in the field anymore, she is continuing her passion for social justice and community issues through the nightly “In Focus” discussions.
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