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Family wants to build artificial reef to memorialize ocean-loving son


How can one weekend hold so much joy and such a bottomless well of pain?

The first Saturday in June, Scott and Martha Harris got word that their youngest son, Ryan, a 21-year-old star pitcher on the University of Florida baseball team, was a draft pick for the Boston Red Sox.

Perhaps you can imagine their parental pride.

But can you conceive of their heartbroken devastation the next day? Their oldest son, Andrew, 26, was struck and killed by a boat while snorkeling in the Jupiter Inlet.

Friends and witnesses say the experienced diver and spearfisherman may have been trying to rescue a friend as two boats were coming into the inlet. No charges were filed in the accident.

What do you do with that kind of grief?

If you’re Scott Harris, you work obsessively on building a memorial to your lost son. An artificial reef, for a young man who loved the ocean.

“I’m doing this so I don’t have to deal with my grief all at once,” said Scott, who owns Group Insurance Solutions in Jupiter.

He’s formed the non-profit Andrew “Red” Harris Foundation, with the mission of building an underwater reef for future generations of divers.

“Our basic message is we don’t want Andrew to be forgotten,” said Scott. “We want to extend his legacy and his name will be on it.”

If all goes as planned, “Red’s Reef” will rise from the sea bottom in northern Palm Beach County waters early next summer, likely between the Jupiter Inlet and the Juno Beach pier.

He loved that ocean more than anything,” said Troy Zielasko, his former roommate at Florida State University, who lives in Boynton Beach. “He would talk for hours about how much he loved Jupiter and the ocean. It was his ocean.”

***

Nobody ever called him Andrew but his parents.

It was always “Red.”

When your hair is the color of an Irish setter and you play sports, a nickname comes with the territory.

Tall and square-jawed, “Red” Harris played basketball at Jupiter High School before earning a business degree at FSU, then coming home to follow in his father’s footsteps by opening his own insurance agency.

“His dad was his best friend,” said Red’s high school friend, Stephen Vonk.

Vonk recalled his buddy’s passion for Scuba diving.

“I don’t think anyone was a water man like “Red” was. Nobody liked being underwater quite like Andrew did,” said Vonk.

Andrew’s mother, Martha, wipes her eyes when she remembers the underwater videos her son shot for her.

“I’m a nervous diver,” she said, “so I got Andrew a GoPro (video camera) for Christmas. That way, I could dive the reefs vicariously through his videos. I loved his videos.”

Red’s Reef will be the second memorial reef in Palm Beach County and one of more than 60 in Palm Beach County waters.

Working with Palm Beach County’s Environment Resources Management, family and friends of Palm Beach Central High School student Danny McCauley, a passionate diver and fisherman, scuttled a 110-foot tugboat in his honor north of the Lake Worth Inlet last year.

Scott Harris would like the reef to grow in length through the years, as the foundation buys and sinks vessels as well as clean concrete debris, an idea aligned with ERM’s mission.

“If you can do something like a ship, then a pile of rock, maybe a barge, then concrete debris in alignment, you can swim from place to place along the way for a mile or so,” said Carmen Vare, environmental supervisor at ERM. “We have permits already from the state and the feds. We can streamline what Scott wants to do within our permitted sites.”

Vare says he’s enthusiastic about the Harris family’s proposal. ERM will even fund up to 75 percent of the cost, as long as the material and location meet state and federal regulations.

“If someone can come up with $10,000 or 25 percent of cost of project, whichever is greater, we’ll pay the rest,” said Vare.

A derelict vessel can cost $30,000 or more, he said.

The Harris Foundation has already raised about $50,000 with a variety of fundraisers scheduled this month and next, with more planned in the months ahead.

Scott Harris’ goal is to sink the first part of Red’s Reef on June 8, the anniversary of his son’s death.

Martha Harris says there’s no better memorial for Andrew.

“The water was what he lived for,” she said softly. “Boating, fishing, diving, those are all the things he loved.”



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