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PLEASANT VIEW, Weber County — Tiffany Stoker, 14, and Tylinn Tilley, 13, sang Primary songs, yelled prayers and even teased each other as they swam for three hours trying to get to shore.
The Pleasant View teens were among three survivors of a tragic boating accident on Bear Lake this week that claimed the lives of four others, including three of their friends.
The other survivor, Kathryn Capener, also spoke Wednesday about the horrific accident that took the life of her husband, her two daughters and another teenage girl.
Dr. Lance Capener, 45, of Pleasant View, and daughters Kelsey, 13, and Kilee, 7, died after their boat capsized during a storm with high winds Monday. Siera Hadley, 13, of Harrisville, also died from injuries sustained in the accident. The cause of the deaths was believed to be hypothermia.
Kathryn Capener, hospitalized since the incident, said she anticipates leaving Logan Regional Hospital soon. She described how the family's boat ride turned tragic during “one last run” for the day.
"Everyone was having fun, and the water had been good,” Capener said in a written statement. "Some of us went out on the boat for one last run. The wind storm and the waves picked up very suddenly, and despite our best efforts to steer through the waves and get back to shore, the boat capsized."
Capener described a desperate, resilient struggle on the part of her family and her daughters' friends.
"We immediately checked on all of the girls and got everyone gathered together in the water,” she wrote. "The girls sang together and prayed to bring comfort and help. As time went on with the waves continuing to crash over everyone, we became separated from some of the girls.”
Capener recalled “Lance and I battl(ing) the waves together with our youngest child, Kilee.”
She praised her hospital caregivers and thanked the search and rescue workers for the way they handled the emergency.
"The rescue workers gave valiant efforts, and even though it was hours before they found us, they did not give up,” she said.
Chris Samuels/Deseret News
'We were terrified'
The two teenage survivors have returned to their families in Pleasant View. Amazingly, the two girls spent only spent several hours at that hospital before they were released.
The girls' parents met with reporters Wednesday to share their remarkable stories. For Melanie Tilley, mother of Tylinn, it was an agonizing three or more hours that the girls were lost at sea as she waited for word on the shore. Nine girls and four mothers in all had made the trip, and some had stayed behind for the last run of the day.
"We were terrified," Tilley said. "We just tried to keep hope. ... The three moms were just huddled together."
Tilley said her daughter told her the whole group that was capsized felt something protect them when the boat first turned over.
"She said, 'I just felt somebody grab my life jacket and pull me out of the water,'" Tilley said.
Tylinn told her mother the Capeners did their best to keep the girls safe in the violent waves.
"Kathy and Lance were doing everything they could to protect the girls from (being hit by) the boat," Tilley said.
Everyone on the boat was wearing a life jacket. Lance Tilly, Tylinn's father, said the boat was about 3 ½ miles from shore.
Two girls decided to stay with the boat, he said, while Tiffany and Tylinn attempted to swim to shore. They swam for three hours and encouraged each other, even massaging each other's cramps when they began to feel weak.
"When Tylinn wanted to give up, Tiffany was strong and when Tiffany wanted to give up, Tylinn was strong," Melanie Tilley said.
Everyone from the boat, including survivors, were limp as "rag dolls" when they were retrieved from the lake by rescuers, according to Melanie Tilley. Rescuers didn't see Tiffany or Tylinn at first but heard their cries for help nearby.
The girls believed at the time they were rescued that the others were all safe. They felt fortunate to be alive.
"(Tylinn) just kept telling paramedics, 'Thank you for saving my life,'" her mother recalled.
The group was only on the boat for 10 or 15 minutes and were playing some music when the severe weather swept in, said Jeff Stoker, Tiffany's father. Once the boat capsized, the group stayed together for an extended period, he said, but the two girls broke off to try to find the shore.
"Lance (eventually) told them, ‘Girls, you better go swim,’" Stoker said.
He described the girls' efforts to comfort each other in a Facebook post Wednesday.
"They sang Primary songs. They prayed. They said the waves and wind were so loud they literally yelled their prayers so the other could hear their words," Stoker wrote.
Not only was the water 53 degrees, but winds gusted at 70 mph and waves at times were an estimated 6 feet high, Stoker said. There was also lightning all around the girls.
"Eventually the winds and water calmed a bit, they saw that the sun was about to set. Tiffany said that it was a beautiful sunset but realized that darkness was about to overtake them. They both were about to give up hope and they were so so tired and that is when they heard the (rescue) boat and started screaming," Stoker wrote in his post.
Lance Tilley said the two girls nearly gave in to exhaustion.
"As my daughter and friend saw the light of the sun go down, they thought they were staring death in the face. Search and rescue drove past as the two screamed for help. Fortunately for us, they heard the girls," Lance Tilley wrote on Facebook.
When rescuers pulled the girls out of the water, their body temperatures were just 68 degrees, he said. They were treated at Logan Regional Hospital for severe hypothermia. The girls likely treaded water for around three hours.
"They told about how they (wanted) to lay their heads back in the water," said Melanie Tilley. "The girls definitely felt all the prayers being said on their behalf."
Tiffany has fully recovered from the incident. Tylinn still has trouble walking and lifting her feet with ease, her father said, but should be back to normal in about two weeks.
"Physically she’s doing really well. Emotionally, she’s got a long road to haul. ... These seven girls (on the trip) were absolutely inseparable. They’ve been friends forever," he said.
The surviving girls have continued to spend time together since the accident.
"They don’t want to leave each other," said Wendy Stoker, Tiffany's mother. "They’re just going to help each other and that’s how they’re going to make it through it."
Lance Tilley said he is still struggling with reconciling his relief over his daughter and the heartbreak he has for his friends.
"To have … (my) heart filled with sorrow for them, it’s very mixed emotions," he said.
He said he has seen the goodness of people and the influence of God throughout the ordeal.
"I have witnessed divine interventions, angelic ministering, tender mercies from God, faith and goodness in people, and a bond between friends that cannot ever be broken; not even by death," Lance Tilley wrote. "Thank you Sierra, Kelsey, Kilee and Lance for letting us be part of your mortal journeys on earth."
Chris Samuels/Deseret News
As word of the tragic accident spread this week, many boaters commented on message boards that they, too, have had close calls on Bear Lake.
"I've nearly been a victim twice on Bear Lake due to the exact thing. It's beautiful, but the weather can change without warning," one commenter wrote.
"I try to be a very cautious boater and feel very experienced on water, but our family has had some scary experiences and we know first hand how things can quickly go bad out on the water," wrote another.
One commenter wrote: "I refuse to go to Bear Lake anymore. I have had way too many bad experiences with horrible weather — especially wind. The weather can change so quickly there."
Craig Floyd has lived in Laketown, a small community off Bear Lake, for more than 50 years. He said he has personally talked to other people whose boats have capsized but they happened to be close to shore. Floyd believes it's a miracle that a tragedy like what happened this week hasn't happened before.
"People coming in don't realize how quickly these mountain storms can happen and the intensity," he said. "We watch the horizon, and we know as soon as the clouds start boiling up, we know things are coming."
Floyd believes officials at Bear Lake State Park should do more to educate people about the dangers of the lake.
"They've got big signs for invasive mussels. They have big signs about 'Don't catch too many fish.' But there's no safety signs, no warnings (such as) 'High winds can come up at anytime,' and tell people how to see that," he said.
Furthermore, Floyd believes there should be more areas along the lake where boats can take shelter should a strong storm develop.
But state boating coordination Ty Hunter doesn't believe Bear Lake presents more of a danger than some of Utah's other big lakes.
Hunter says while the state does not have an education program specifically to advise boaters of the challenges of boating on Bear Lake, he advises all boaters — whether they're on Bear Lake, Utah Lake or the Great Salt Lake — to become familiar with that lake before launching a boat. He also says boaters should get a detailed look at the day's weather forecast and know ahead of time the limitations of their boats.
Every body of water is different and reacts differently to each storm, he said. Hunter said checking a lake's website or talking to the lake manager to ask what to look for would be ideal.
As for Monday's storm, Floyd said, his son watched it roll in from the marina. He called it "the mother of all storms" because of its erratic wind pattern.
His advice to boaters is if you see the clouds getting dark, get off the lake.
"Whether you can feel the wind or not, get off the water. It's not worth saying it might not happen," he said.