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Hundreds gather at jetty to commemorate Tequesta teens’ disappearance

Looking skyward into the pink clouds, hundreds gathered at sunset Sunday and cheered as sky lanterns were lit and floated upwards to mark the disappearance of Austin Stephanos and Perry Cohen.

“There’s nothing you can do to make what happened better. We’re all here to show the families how much we care,” said Jupiter resident Paula Rappold, sitting on the south seawall of the inlet.

Sunday’s memorial — held in Jupiter and dozens of other locations — comes a year to the day the two 14-year-old boys left the Jupiter Inlet in a 19-foot-boat on a Friday afternoon. The boys were not found despite a massive search of more than 50,000 square miles of sea by the U.S. Coast Guard and the families.

A few months after the boys vanished, a small memorial was placed at the foot of the jetty on the south side of the Jupiter Inlet. There are photographs of smiling Perry and Austin. People leave sea shells, hats, candles, flowers, headbands, fishing lures.

Several blue plastic butterflies were attached to that memorial by Jupiter resident Karen Emerson, who said she has felt the tragedy of the death of a child.

“The butterfly signifies hope. It goes into the cocoon but comes out as a beautiful butterfly. We all hope things will get better for the families,” Emerson said.

Jason and Kerri Miller from Boynton Beach sat on the jetty with their three young children. One of them, 14-year-Austin, was casting his fishing line into the inlet.

“Yes, his name is Austin and he is 14. And he has his own 18-foot boat. Like the boys, my son grew up on the water. We are all so much more careful now. We’re here to show the families how much we care,” said Jason.

TJ Carragher pulled out his cellphone to show a smiling Austin Stephanos. Carragher, 21, said he took the photo of his pal Austin about two months before the boys disappeared.

“Everybody loved him. He was always fishing and on the boat. When he wasn’t, he was always laughing and having fun,” said Carragher.

Looking at the hundreds sitting on the seawall, standing on the jetty and floating in boats on the inlet, the Jupiter resident said he was not surprised at the response to the memorial.

“Even if you didn’t know Perry or Austin, you knew somebody who did. Or you knew somebody just like them, people who fished and was in boats all the time. That’s why all these people are here. We’re a close community,” said Carragher.

Standing on the sand with several friends, Austin’s second cousin Bailey said the turnout was comforting for him and his family. The Jupiter High student said he and Austin had been out fishing with their families several times.

Bailey said he will never go out on the ocean again in a boat.

“I know Austin would want me to out there. But I never will again. I won’t change my mind,” he said, staring straight ahead.

People started gathering about 7 p.m., filling the parking lot at DuBois Park and nearby Jupiter Beach Park. Before the sky lanterns were lit, an airplane circled. The plane carried a banner reading “Leave the light on — A & P.”

One of the organizers for the event was Elysa Vulpis. The 39-year-old Fort Lauderdale resident is not a boater. She does not have any children.

“These boys were so young. When I heard about it. It just touched my heart. I had to do something,” she said.

Many students, such as Clayton Monzione, about the age of Perry and Austin, were in the crowd.

“Perry and Austin are really missed by the kids at school. I still go fishing all the time. I’m a lot more careful,” said the 15-year-old Dwyer High School tenth-grader who was there with his brown pit bull, Marly.

Before the sky lanterns were lit, dozens of people stopped by the handmade memorial to the boys on the jetty. Some left stuffed animals. Others tied red balloons to the railing. Young children blew bubbles and watched them float away.

“We’re always thinking about the boys. We’ll never stop. We still think they are still out there. We all say they are fishing in the Bahamas,” said Carragher, looking at the photo of the smiling Austin in his cellphone.

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