Eight days after two teenagers were reported missing on Utah Lake, the search came to an end. The bodies of Priscilla Bienkowski and Sophia Hernandez were discovered Thursday, Utah County Sheriff Mike Smith said.
“On behalf of the sheriff’s office and all the volunteers who have helped do this, is express our sincere condolences to the families of these girls,” Smith said. “This has been hard for everybody involved. I want to thank the families for their patience with us. It’s been stressful on our crews; it’s been hard to locate these young ladies and I want to thank them for their patience on that. … I can’t imagine, and never want to imagine, what they’re going through.”
Bienkowski, 18, and Hernandez, 17, both of Saratoga Springs, went out to the Knolls area on the west side of Utah Lake on May 6, late that afternoon, to go tubing.
A fisherman came across the first body, found by the shore near the jetties by the Lincoln Beach marina, at 1:30 p.m., and the second body was discovered three hours later by a pilot with the sheriff’s office.
The second body was found about half a mile from where the second tube was found, 8.5 miles from where the teenagers entered the water.
“Over the past eight days, there's been well over 1,000 hours of time put into this search,” Smith said. “More than 10 boats, 12 wave runners, several helicopters and airplanes.”
Justin Gordon, a sergeant with the sheriff’s office and search and rescue coordinator, said the most difficult part of the search was dealing with weather.
Shortly after Bienkowski and Hernandez went out to the lake, strong winds made their way through Utah County. Winds picked up to 20-25 mph and increased to approximately 50 mph overnight.
The water temperature in Utah Lake was 57 degrees that day.
Gordon was confident that authorities had established a good search area, working south from where the teenagers went into the water and where they had verified the pair had last been seen — yet they were off by 6 miles.
“It makes no sense,” Gordon said. “I’m going to have to digest this and figure out how I would handle a search in the future if one ever happens like this. But we were working the right areas for where our experience said they should have been, and here we end up 6 miles east.”
A multitude of agencies, including Utah State Parks, Wasatch County, Washington County and Utah Highway Patrol, assisted in the search. But even with all the help and resources, the weather was too severe on the lake to let them work to their best capacity.
“You look at even the [13 mph] wind that we’re feeling right here,” Smith said. “You wouldn’t think that’s much, but on Utah Lake, a wind just like this makes that lake dangerous. That, for people out on the lake, becomes a problem, and it also becomes a problem for us when we’re trying to search. For the majority of our search time, Mother Nature just wasn’t working with us on this one.”
State Boat and Safety Coordinator Ty Hunter said Utah Lake is comprised of very dynamic complications. Besides weather conditions, it is a large body of water (96,000 surface acres) and has a lot of influence because of its size.
The lake can turn from flat glass to extreme conditions in a matter of moments, Hunter said. Authorities also struggled with water clarity, instead relying on side-scan sonar and multibeam sonar technology.
“Just remember that any time you go out on the water, whether you’re out on a boat or you’re going to go play on the water … wear your life jacket,” Hunter said. “That life jacket is your insurance to come home at the end of the day. It is your seat belt while you’re out on the water. It will keep you safe.”