Missing Florida Teens' Boat Had No Emergency Radio: 'There Shouldn't Be a Boat Out There' That Doesn't Have One, Step-Father Says
As a legal battle over the fate of the iPhone belonging to one of two Florida teens missing at sea since a July 24 fishing excursion continues, some officials and family members are taking note of one item missing from their vessel that most boaters consider crucial: a VHF radio.
Though not required for recreational vessels less than 65.6 feet, boating safety advocates consider VHF radios the single-most important piece of equipment a boater can have in the event of an emergency. Austin Stephanos and Perry Cohen, both 14, were operating a 19-foot single-engine Seacraft without a radio when they steered out of Jupiter Inlet and into the Atlantic Ocean that day.
“Even though it’s not required, we recommend that people purchase and carry a marine radio,” U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Eric Woodall told PEOPLE. “Our primary concern is the safety and well-being of everyone. Anyone traveling more than a few miles offshore should consider purchasing a marine radio and an EPIRB as well.”
EPIRBs, emergency position-indicating radiobeacons, 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.
An EPIRB might have helped U.S. Coast Guard search and rescue teams quickly locate the boat. Personal locator beacons (PLBs), which attach to clothing or life jackets, also might have helped searchers find the boys themselves.
Pamela Cohen and Nicholas Korniloff, Perry’s mother and stepfather, say they were surprised to learn that the boat did not have a radio.
“That’s your first line of defense that works wherever you are, cell signal or no cell signal,” Cohen told PEOPLE in an exclusive interview at the family’s Tequesta home. AT&T records show that Austin’s iPhone lost connection at about 1:16 the afternoon of the boys’ disappearance, shortly before a storm hit.
“The legislation for boating is archaic,” Korniloff added. “There shouldn’t be a boat out there that doesn’t have a radio, a compass or a GPS, all of which are probably a third of the cost of an EPIRB or a personal locator beacon.”
The boat was recovered March 18 by the crew of the Edda Fjord, a Norwegian freighter. The vessel, built in 1978, was capsized and floating in a shipping channel about 100 miles off the Bermuda coast. Inside a latched compartment were multiple items that have come under scrutiny, including Austin’s iPhone, several tackle boxes and dozens of lures that since have been airmailed to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
According to Edda Accommodation, the Malta-based shipping company that owns the Edda Fjord, the boat has been carefully preserved and is in a shipping crate headed to Florida’s Port Everglades, where the FFWCC will take it into custody.
The boat’s title shows that it was registered in the name of Carly Black – Austin’s mother – and was issued on June 22, 2015, just a month before the boys vanished. In an interview with FFWCC investigators, former owner Rex Richards said that a shotgun pistol flare gun was on board when he sold the boat, along with three life jackets, a throwable life cushion and two anchors. Richard Kuntz, Austin’s grandfather, said the family had purchased new flares and that all required safety equipment was on the vessel.
On August 4, Kuntz told FFWCC investigators that the boat was in “perfect working condition” and that Austin had operated the vessel about 20 times. Kuntz said he had “no qualms at all about [his grandson] using it out in the ocean.” And, when Austin was stopped on the water in a routine check by a marine patrol officer a week before the boys’ disappearance, the officer confirmed that all safety equipment mandated by Florida law was aboard.
In an effort to help protect other boaters and families from enduring the same fate, the Stephanos family launched the AustinBlu Foundation, named for Austin and his father, Blu Stephanos, in August. The foundation’s mission is to provide boater safety programs, promote legislation aimed at improving boater safety and increasing the awareness and availability of safety devices that can reduce the number of boating related fatalities.
Florida lawmakers credit the Stephanos family and the AustinBlu Foundation with helping to draft and urge passage of the Beacon Bill, which provides vessel registration discounts to boaters to buy EPIRBs or PLBs for their watercraft. The bill was approved by Governor Rick Scott on March 25 and goes into effect July 1.
WATCH: Critical Clues That You Need to Know About Florida Teens Missing at Sea
“We’re talking about locating,” Blu Stephanos told Palm Beach County Commissioners in a December 15 presentation of the then-proposed legislation, his voice cracking. “We’re not talking about spending seven, eight days in a helicopter, searching for my son.”
“It’s too easy to be angry. That emotion is the first emotion that comes to you,” Stephanos told PEOPLE in December. But the foundation’s effort to pass the Beacon bill “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 [Austin] is.”
Cohen and Korniloff also established the Perry J. Cohen foundation, providing boater safety education; scholarships for students studying marine science and wildlife and coastline preservation; and financial assistance for to future search and rescue efforts for others lost at sea.
“I always told Perry from when he was a very, very little boy that there was something about him, that there was something he was going to do to change the world,” Cohen said. “I just never knew that it would be like this.”
Meanwhile, it remains to be seen whether and to what extent the boat, scheduled to reach Port Everglades on May 16, will be forensically analyzed. Because the boat was found with the ignition and battery switch in the off position, a thorough search for DNA, fingerprints or other evidence could point to a third party having accessed the boat or simply confirm the primary consensus that the boys may have experienced mechanical trouble and ultimately fell victim to storm.
“Once the boat comes back in we will look at the boat to the extent that we can,” FFWCC General Counsel Howard Vielhauer said via phone during an April 29 hearing. He did not give details as to how or by whom the examination would be performed. Because the case is not classified as a criminal one, the boat, like the iPhone, may go back to the Stephanos family without a full forensic analysis.
“We have our own experts, people that we can call in ourselves to look at that boat and give their forensic analysis of it. They’re willing to do that,” Korniloff says. “But we don’t know if we’re even going to be able to have access to it.”
Still, Cohen and Korniloff believe that the unexpected recovery of the boat points to some degree of fate.
“If this was to remain an unsolved mystery, it would remain an unsolved mystery,” Cohen said. “But to have the actual boat that the boys were on and an iPhone that they were both using for communication to suddenly reappear 100 miles off the coast of Bermuda in international waters, there’s a reason. There are answers begging to be discovered.”