Artificial reef honors young life cut short with statue of Jesus

Memorial reef created, sunk off the First Coast

JACKSONVILLE, Fla -- A tragedy in Duval County turned into beauty off the coast of St. Johns County.

In April, investigators say a drunk driver hit a young man, 19-year-old John Leone. It happened in April on Gate Parkway. Leone died a little over a week later.

Friends of the family chose to do something special and dedicated an artificial reef in his name.

Last week, the artificial reef was created. It honors Leone, but it has something no other reef has off the First Coast: a statue of Jesus.

"He was just a great kid," an emotional Jack Leone said of his son.

"He loved to fish, to dive," Leone said. "He just loved life."

Following the funeral, Leone bumped into his friend Joe Kistel. Kistel runs a non-profit group called TISIRI which is involved in reef creation and environmental conservation.

"I know John's family. Great family," Kistel said. "They are active offshore and have helped with TISIRI projects."

Jack Leone recalled Kistel talking to him in a Lowe's parking lot. "He said, 'I need your permission for something.' I said, 'what's up?'"

Kistel explained that the contractor and TISIRI were planning on creating a reef anyway, and they'd like to put John Leone's name on it "to serve as a memorial."

Jack Leone remembered, "I got kind of choked up because it's going to be there in perpetuity. I just didn't know what to say."

He said yes.

So last Friday, the Leone family, a barge of recycled concrete, and the TISIRI group headed out to a site 12 miles off Mickler's Landing in Ponte Vedra, and a crane started to drop concrete into the ocean.

TISIRI also brought a statue of Jesus to sink at the site.

Jack Leone explained that one of the dive teams took the statue down "with lift bags because he's 1,000 pounds and about 6 feet and 5 inches."

Jack Leone also helped with placing the statue of Jesus at the newly created artificial reef. He said they called themselves "Team Jesus."

"The way it worked out it so incredible," Leone said. "These concrete pieces just fell down randomly. There's a crane dropping them off the barge, and two pieces at the beginning of the reef crossed over and we put him (the statue) right there. It's truly amazing!"

For Leone, it's special for his family to have a reef named after his son. It's deeply touching to have a statue of Jesus there as well.

"John was raised Catholic. We're a Catholic family," Jack Leone said. "And that's what it's all about. I mean I know John is with Jesus now anyway."

He paused. "Thank God I have that faith because I don't know how I'd be able to move forward. I really don't."

The reef was created by volunteers and donations, from groups such as Dell Marine and TISIRI.

Kistel described the new artificial reef, "Over time you'll get an area out there that supports all levels of the marine food chain. Tons of fish, invertebrates, and growth. It's really amazing what happens over time."

The John C. Leone Reef will become a place marked by faith, and a memorial teeming with life… to honor the life of a young man.

The coordinates for the John C. Leone Reef are:

30° 10 148′ N

81° 09 634′ W

For more information about TISIRI, go to tisiri.org.


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