Dozens of faces line the conference room wall of ACR Electronics’ headquarters in Fort Lauderdale, Florida – reminders of those people who survived harrowing experiences at sea and were ultimately rescued.
But the faces of 14-year-old friends Austin Stephanos and Perry Cohen are not among them.
“It was pretty hard seeing all those wonderful stories of all those people saved,” Austin’s father, Blu Stephanos, tells PEOPLE of his visit to the facility, which manufactures boating safety gear. “I think it was pretty emotional for the staff at ACR, too. It was the first time that someone had come to them and said, ‘I lost my son.’ “
The Tequesta teens, both of whom grew up on the water and were considered skilled outdoorsmen, set out from southeast Florida’s Jupiter Inlet for a boating excursion on the afternoon of July 24.
They were never seen again.
But their tragic loss may yet yield something positive for others. Through the AustinBlu Foundation, a nonprofit organization set up in the wake of the boys’ disappearance, the Stephanos family is working to raise awareness, provide education, and make tools and technology available to prevent boating accidents and fatalities.
The first order of business: Lobbying lawmakers and promoting the use of the type of emergency locator devices that might have saved the boys lives.
‘The Town Just Stopped’
“I’ve never felt so lost, so scared so helpless,” Stephanos says of the ordeal that began that fateful Friday afternoon, when Austin and Perry, longtime friends, failed to return home from their day on the water.
“At the same time, I’ve never had so much support,” Stephanos says. “I’ve always been a pretty proud person, the one that lends the hand. To get all this support from perfect strangers all over the United States and even outside the U.S. was the most moving thing I’ve ever felt in my life.”
No one knows just what happened after the boys were last seen at a marina at around 1:30 p.m. local time, buying fuel before heading out in their 19-foot SeaCraft boat, which would be found capsized two days later, 67 miles off Daytona Beach.
A U.S. Coast Guard’s search for the boys ended July 31, but the families continued a private search that stretched into early August.
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“The town just stopped,” says Nichole Kalil, an ACR Electronics media specialist and AustinBlu Foundation board member. “Everyone stopped what they were doing, dug into their pockets and started helping in whatever way they could, whether that was baking cookies or getting out on their boats to help search or walking the beaches.”
Soon after the searches came to an end, the Stephanos family committed to turning their grief into action.
On the recommendation of a mutual friend, Blu and his ex-wife, Carly Stephanos, visited ACR Electronics and met with Kalil to tour the company’s manufacturing operations and learn more about emergency beacons.
Of particular interest to the family were emergency position indicator radio beacons, commonly known as EPIRBs, and personal locator beacons, or PLBs.
EPIRBS are registered to vessels while PLBs are registered to individuals. But both use the same technology and serve the same purpose – to help rescuers quickly locate missing or stranded boaters.
PLBs are push-button activated, while EPIRBS can be activated manually or by coming into contact with enough water to suggest that a vessel is taking on water or has capsized. Once activated, a beacon sends a coded message on the 406 MHz distress frequency which is relayed via Cospas-Sarsat, an international satellite-based search-and-rescue system coordinated by the US, Russia, France and Canada.
Statistics from Cospas-Sarsat show that use of 406 MHz beacons have saved more than 37,000 lives since the system’s establishment in 1979, including more than 2,000 in 2013 alone.
“Once they learned about the beacons, it wasn’t a week later that Blu called and said, ‘We want to start a foundation,’ ” Kalil says. “I asked, ‘Are you sure you don’t want to spend some time mourning?’ But Blu said, ‘No, we want to use all of the energy and attention and support we’re receiving to bring some positive light to this. If it means having a particular device onboard, we want to make sure everyone has one.’ ”
Grief into Action
No one knows for sure whether emergency beacons would have saved Austin and Perry. But the life-saving potential for other boaters proved enough to spur action.
In November, the Stephanos family met with state Sen. Joe Negron and state Rep. MaryLynn Magar to discuss ideas for improving boater safety in Florida. Those meetings culminated in two proposed legislative bills: SB 746 and HB 427.
If passed, these bills will reduce boat registration fees by approximately 25 percent for boaters who purchase and register an EPIRB or PLB.
The bills were announced in November; and on Dec. 15, Stephanos made an emotional plea to the Palm Beach County Commission to support the proposed legislation.
“We’re talking about locating,” Stephanos told commissioners, his voice cracking. “We’re not talking about spending seven, eight days in a helicopter, searching for my son.”
The commission unanimously voted to support the proposals and Florida Governor Scott has pledged his support, too.
If both bills make it through the various committees of the state legislative session, which runs from January through March, the law will go into effect July 1, 2016.
Safety advocates hope that other coastal states will follow suit.
“I admire Blu and the entire family for committing themselves to improving boater safety in our state,” Sen. Negron tells PEOPLE. “Obviously, nothing can undo the tragedy, but they are focusing their energies on reducing the fatalities that come from boating accidents.”
Stephanos admits that he struggles daily with the loss of his son, but also believes he draws strength from Austin in working to further the AustinBlu Foundation’s mission.
Throughout the interview with PEOPLE, he often spoke about Austin in the present tense.
“It’s too easy to be angry. That emotion is the first emotion that comes to you. But this is the right emotion,” Stephanos says of willing himself work through the heartache to bring about change.
“I can’t say that I feel strong every day. It comes in waves,” he says. “But it gives me hope that something positive is going to come out of this, that we’ll be able to protect someone else from ever having to feel the way I feel or be where he is.
“Every day, I still hope there’s a chance I’m going to see him again.”