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Missing Florida Teens: Coast Guard Searched for Boys, Not iPhone

This combination made from photos provided by the U.S. Coast Guard shows Perry Cohen, left, and Austin Stephanos, both 14 years old. Cohen and Stephanos were last seen Friday afternoon, July 24, 2015, in the Jupiter, Fla. area. (U.S. Coast Guard via AP)
This combination made from photos provided by the U.S. Coast Guard shows Perry Cohen, left, and Austin Stephanos, both 14 years old. Cohen and Stephanos were last seen Friday afternoon, July 24, 2015, in the Jupiter, Fla. area. (U.S. Coast Guard via AP)

A Coast Guard helicopter crew that discovered the capsized boat used by Perry Cohen and Austin Stephanos two days after they went missing was tasked with searching for survivors and not retrieving evidence or items from the vessel, a spokesman said Monday.

The Coast Guard lost track of the boat for months before it was located by a Norwegian ship March 18 off the coast of Bermuda. An iPhone belonging to Stephanos was found inside the 19-foot SeaCraft sport-fishing boat, leading some to wonder if the phone holds clues to the boys' disappearance and if a more thorough search of the boat when it was first found could have turned up the phone.

Petty Officer Mark Barney said that a Coast Guard rescue swimmer dropped into the ocean after the boys' boat was located off New Smyrna Beach on July 26 was primarily concerned with finding and rescuing Cohen and Stephanos.

"Once it was confirmed that the boys weren't in the vessel or near the vessel, we didn't want one of our assets just standing by with the boat," Barney said. "We weren't really concerned with the boat. Our main concern was the boys, and we wanted to make sure we had all assets available in the air and the water searching."

The rescue swimmer deployed into the water on July 26 circled the SeaCraft looking for the boys, then called in the condition of the vessel and its serial number. Protocol mandates that the crew inside the rescue helicopter must keep visual contact at all times with the rescue swimmer, Barney said. That means the swimmer was prohibited from going underneath or inside the capsized boat, which was bobbing in rough conditions.

"It's dangerous," Barney said. "You go underneath the boat, hit your head and now we have another search-and-rescue case going on."

Barney said Coast Guard crews working out of helicopters normally carry only one rescue swimmer on board.

"So if something happens to him, who is going to help him?" Barney said. "We've just compounded the problem. Once our rescue swimmer confirmed the boys weren't there or in the area, their approach was, 'We have to keep on moving.' "

The rescue swimmer deployed a beacon near the boat, but the device malfunctioned and the Coast Guard lost track of the vessel.

Richard Wood, commander of the Palm Beach Sail and Power Squadron, said he was not surprised that the boys' boat remained intact despite eight months on the high seas. Wood said that small, fiberglass boats like the SeaCraft have foam-filled, water-tight compartments that make them virtually impossible to sink.

More unexpected, Wood said, was that the boat was found at all.

"It's a miracle to find anything that size in the middle of the Atlantic," Wood said. "It's literally a pinprick on an elephant's back to find the boat like that, but they did."

Barney admits that the Coast Guard didn't think the boat would turn up again after it was lost in July.

"Finding that vessel is something we weren't expecting," Barney said. "But we're glad to hear that they did."

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