January 3, 2004 - Personal Web Site: The Loss of Tuvalu RPCVs Eileen and Tom Lonergan at Sea on the Great Barrier Reef

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Tuvalu: Special Report: The loss of Tuvalu RPCVs Tom and Eileen Lonergan: January 3, 2004 - Personal Web Site: The Loss of Tuvalu RPCVs Eileen and Tom Lonergan at Sea on the Great Barrier Reef

By Admin1 (admin) (pool-151-196-232-99.balt.east.verizon.net - on Sunday, January 04, 2004 - 9:41 pm: Edit Post

The Loss of Tuvalu RPCVs Eileen and Tom Lonergan at Sea on the Great Barrier Reef

The Loss of Tuvalu RPCVs Eileen and Tom Lonergan at Sea on the Great Barrier Reef

The Loss of Two Divers at Sea - Great Barrier Reef

© Michael McFadyen - Devilfish Diving Services

As most people would be aware, in January 1998, two American divers disappeared from a dive boat when diving the Great Barrier Reef in Northern Queensland, Australia. The following is a reconstruction of the incident from media reports of the Coroner's Inquest conducted in Cairns, North Queensland, from 7 September 1998.

On 25 January 1998, Thomas Lonergan, 34, and his wife Eileen, 28, departed their Cairns backpackers' hostel in a BTS Bus Company bus for the short trip to Port Douglas where they were booked in a dive charter boat, Outer Edge. The Lonergans were from Baton Rouge in Louisiana and had just completed a tour of duty as Peace Corp volunteers in the South Pacific. As part of a three month holiday before returning to the USA, Mr and Mrs Lonergan were doing some diving on the Great Barrier Reef.

The Lonergans arrived at Port Douglas and boarded the Outer Edge, a boat of about 12 metres and licensed to carry at least 26 passengers. On Sunday 25 January, the boat was under the command of the owner, Geoffrey Ian "Jack" Nairn. The Outer Edge headed out with 26 passengers to St Crispin Reef which was about 38 nautical miles north-east from Port Douglas. The Lonergans did two dives on the reef in this area and at about 3 pm, a third dive was started at a dive site called Fish City.

The Lonergans advised a diving instructor employed on the Outer Edge, Ms Katherine Traverso, that they would "go off and do their own thing" (quote from Mr Richard Triggs of Cairns, a diver on the trip - Note Mr Triggs reported that Outer Edge was the best operator he had seen, not really much of a recommendation as he had only done 40 dives). This action by the Lonergans is nothing unusual as most experienced divers would know but of which some media made adverse comments soon after the incident.

The Lonergans' dive details were not entered into the boat's divermaster's log book at the end of the dive. See comments at trial.

It is alleged that a head count was conducted and 26 passengers counted. As far as can be ascertained, the Outer Edge then departed St Crispin Reef without waiting for the Lonergans to return to the boat. Mr Triggs told the Inquest that as far as he recalls, there was no head count done when the Outer Edge left the dive site. At the Coroner's Inquest, Mr Christopher Coxon, Acting Senior Inspector, Department of Employment, Training and Industrial Relations, Queensland, reported that the Lonergans would have had to swim six kilometres to the nearest refuge, a pontoon moored at Agincourt Reef. This would have been across a probable strong current (this is contrary to comments made in the media shortly after the Lonergans disappeared about the distance to the pontoon).

The Outer Edge then returned to Port Douglas. When the boat had docked, the crew apparently noticed that there was at least one bag left behind by the passengers but they do not appear to have investigated this further and simply moved the bag to another location on the boat. In fact there were two bags. One was a plastic bag containing the Lonergans' dry clothes and Mr Lonergan's glasses. In addition, there was a nearly empty dive bag. In addition, the boat was missing two tanks and two weight belts!

Soon after, the bus from BTS arrived to take the Lonergans (and maybe some other divers) back to their accommodation. The driver, Norman Stigant, went to the BTS office at about 5.30 to 6.00 pm and reported to the owner of BTS, Ms Corinne Ann Scharenguivel that the Lonergans were not waiting for him when he arrived at the wharf. He reported that he looked for the Americans in the ice cream parlour, the coffee shops, the hotel as well as other areas but he could not find them. There were also two pairs of shoes belongong to the Lonergans that were not collected from the wharf (or dive shop) when the boat returned.

Ms Scharenguivel reported that she then phoned Outer Edge dive charters and spoke to a person that she believed was the owner, Mr Nairn. Ms Scharenguivel reported that she could not remember the exact content of the conversation but that "All I can say is the response I got back was it was OK for our driver to leave [without them]".

On Monday 26 January 1998, two weight belts were discovered at St Crispin Reef by a diver on the Outer Edge when they returned to the same dive site with different divers. This was reported to Mr Nairn. It is possible/probable that these were the Lonergans' belts dropped by them once the discovered the boat had left them behind.

Late on Tuesday 27 January 1998, more than 48 hours after the Outer Edge returned to Port Douglas, the crew of the boat noticed a dive bag on the boat when they returned to the wharf after that day's diving. The bag was opened and "I looked in the bag and thought, Jesus Christ, it's got a wallet and papers in it" Mr Nairn was tape recorded by Police as saying. He apparently said that he recognised a shirt in the bag as being one worn by Mr Lonergan on the day he dived. it would appear that Mr Nairn then called the Police, 51 hours after the Lonergans disappeared.

On 28 January 1998 a search by 17 aircraft, helicopters and boats, Police, Navy and civilian divers began. No trace of the Lonergans was found despite the search continuing for many days.

On 5 February 1998, Mr Lonergan's BCD was found near Indian Heads, 10 kilometres north of Cooktown, about 105 km north of Port Douglas. There was no tank attached.

Some time later Mrs Lonergan's green and grey wetsuit was found washed ashore. It had tears in the buttocks area, presumed to have been caused by a shark. I believe that this was also in the area near where the BCD ended up. I believe that Mrs Lonergan's BCD also ended up in the same area. Even later on, a slate was found on a beach and this was apparently confirmed as being the Lonergans from things written on it (See Court Trial below).

Other evidence given at the Coroner's Inquest included:
# The fact that Outer Edge had previously left dive sites without carrying out a head count to ensure that all divers were back on board the boat (reported by Mr Christopher Coxon, Acting Senior Inspector, Department of Employment, Training and Industrial Relations, Queensland).
# World renowned Australian diver, Ben Cropp, with 48 years diving experience, more than 10,000 logged dives, said that "My personal feeling is they were taken by a tiger [shark] in the first 24 to 48 hours" (see comment above about Mrs Lonergan's wetsuit).

So what happened?
# Well, there is no doubt that the Lonergans were left behind at St Crispin Reef.
# There is no doubt that the Outer Edge returned to Port Douglas without realising that the Lonergans were missing.
# There is also no doubt that the Lonergans were not missed by the owner and crew, even though they left behind all their clothes in a bag, their shoes were on the wharf, the dive boat had to have been missing two scuba tanks and weight belts and the bus owner had told the owner of Outer Edge that the Lonergans were missing.
# My guess is that the Lonergans did a longer dive than the others on the trip or they ended up down current from the boat and could not attract the attention of the crew.
# The crew did not do a proper head count and left.
# The Lonergans surfaced and seeing that the boat was heading away or already gone, they dropped their weight belts.
# The Lonergans probably would not have been able to see the day platform (where some boats tie up to drop off snorkellers) which is allegedly three to six kilometres away from the dive site (various reports I read contradicted each other).
# This platform was supposed to be up current so even if they could see it, they would have been unlikely to have been able to swim to it.
# Therefore the only option would have been to go with the current and perhaps slowing swimming towards the west at the same time.
# They would have not dropped their tanks straight away as they probably expected the boat to return in a few minutes or at the most, 30 minutes once the crew realised they were two divers short.
# When the boat did not return, probably when it started to get dark, I think that they then dropped their scuba tanks (if aluminium, they would have floated if empty and probably ended up on the beach as well). Perhaps the tanks were still fairly full and so sank (more likely then that they ended up down current and surfaced early).
# The Lonergans, quite rightly, probably expected that a rescue ship or helicopter would have been out looking for them just after dark, as soon as the crew returned to shore and realised they were missing.
# At the worst, they may have thought that the rescue may not have started till dawn.
# As the next day passed, they would have become very dehydrated due to the heat. They may have become delerious.
# I think they may have decided to ditch their BCDs at this time, either in a weakened mental state of mind or in attempt to swim to shore (a BCD would severely restrict swimming attempts due to increased friction). Remember, they had wetsuits on which would have given floatation.
# They then died, probably due to dehyrdration or simply falling asleep and drowning.
# A shark or sharks may have attacked them, causing the damage to Mrs Lonergan's wetsuit, mauling her so badly that she no longer floated and totally taking Mr Lonergan.

This is, of course, pure guesswork, but based on other similar diving accidents, personal experience of being separated for an extended period from my dive boat, shipwreck information (re what happens to bodies) and the evidence given, I believe a pretty accurate record of the event.

On Friday 10 October 1998, the Coroner Mr Nunan, SM, found that Thomas and Eileen Lonergan died at sea from either drowning, exposure or shark attack some time between 8 am on 26 January 1998 and 2 February 1998. He committed Geoffrey Ian "Jack" Nairn to stand trial for manslaughter over the deaths of Thomas and Eileen Lonergan. Mr Nunan also recommended that certain dive safety reforms be introduced They are


Soon after the disappearance of Mr and Mrs Lonergan, rumours began to circulate (and be published in the media) that they had either faked their disappearance or had commited suicide. There were many reasons put up why these were true, a fading marriage, dissatisfaction with having to return to the United States after completing their Peace Corp work. It is almost certain that these rumours were started by people associated with the Outer Edge company or the Queensland dive industry in an effort to shift blame away from the operator. However, even if they are true (and I for one never even thought it possible), the fact is that the Outer Edge still left two divers out on the Great Barrier Reef and did not notice this or report it to the Police for more than two full days.

One of the things that convinced me that the disappearance was above board was the following story. In about October, November or December of 1997, there was an article in the Good Weekend supplement to the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age in which a journalist wrote about the experience of being on a liveaboard which left two divers at a site and motored for hours through the night with the crew refusing to believe that divers were missing. It was not until the journalist insisted that a search be conducted of the boat that they turned around and went back. Luckily, the two divers were found alive. If this could happen on a liveaboard, why not on a day boat?


The trial of Jack Nairn began on 8 November 1999. Unfortunately I went overseas on 9 November 1999 and only saw some newspaper items on the trial. However, the final outcome was that Mr Nairn was found not guilty.

# Sydney Morning Herald - various dates in late January and early February 1998
# Daily Telegraph - various dates in late January and early February 1998
# Sydney Morning Herald - various dates in September 1998
# Daily Telegraph - various dates in September 1998
# Sydney Morning Herald - 9 November 1999

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Story Source: Personal Web Site

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Tuvalu; Scuba; Obituaries



By lemonlime (cs6711213-166.satx.rr.com - on Sunday, July 18, 2004 - 12:38 am: Edit Post

Good Grief!!! When are we going to be responsible for our actions...What a tradegy of mankind..

By Joe Evans ( on Monday, August 23, 2004 - 4:16 pm: Edit Post

I didn't hear about this story until the movie came out..This is truly a tragedy..The movie however made it look like Mrs.Lonergan gave up and killed herself. What else do we know about this couple??

By leyla (24-136-18-75.snb-bsr1.chi-snb.il.cable.rcn.com - on Saturday, September 11, 2004 - 11:03 pm: Edit Post

Hello, are you kidding? Mrs. Lonergan gave up and killed herself?? What would you do after you watched your husband get mauled by sharks. AND you've been floating in the middle of the ocean for 1 and a half days?

By jameson (cache-rtc-aa04.proxy.aol.com - on Saturday, February 26, 2005 - 4:57 pm: Edit Post

So they found her wetsuit with only a tear in buttocks? It seems like if she wear attacked by a shark there would have been more tears....

By jameson (cache-rtc-aa04.proxy.aol.com - on Saturday, February 26, 2005 - 4:57 pm: Edit Post

So they found her wetsuit with only a tear in buttocks? It seems like if she wear attacked by a shark there would have been more tears....

By Johnson (pcp05931330pcs.vnburn01.mi.comcast.net - on Thursday, March 24, 2005 - 11:08 am: Edit Post

I read somewhere on the internet that they found a camera inside of a shark that belongs to the Longergans. Is this true or was that the fiction part of the movie "Open Water"? If it was true did they find anything from that camera?

By Mark Lavelle (p4119-ipbf605marunouchi.tokyo.ocn.ne.jp - on Monday, May 23, 2005 - 11:06 pm: Edit Post

There were various explanations offered for the tear in the buttocks of Eileen Lonergan's wetsuit:

1) the tear seemed likely to be from a brush with coral than a shark attack;

2) Top Australian diver with 50 yrs experience and over 10,000 dives believes they were both taken by a Tiger Shark, looking at the wetsuit tears.

What a sad, terrible ending for them both. May they RIP.

By JamieBond (adsl-66-139-199-130.dsl.rcsntx.swbell.net - on Friday, May 27, 2005 - 11:44 pm: Edit Post

Fair winds and following seas to their families and friends. Let them rest in peace. We've just seen the movie and then researched their lives. God Bless you all.

By howsitgoing (82-39-163-100.cable.ubr01.gate.blueyonder.co.uk - on Wednesday, November 09, 2005 - 2:41 pm: Edit Post

fair winds, following seas. good luck in the next life.

By kelly Oconnor ( - on Monday, May 15, 2006 - 11:46 am: Edit Post

I think that the outer edge should have to pay some sort of penelty because the were neglegent those people were not at fault at all. even if they were late comming backyou dont just leave without a head count. I hope the person at fault has nightmares about being chewed to death slow or drowing. what a horrific way to die. i hope there families go after this horrible ordeal.

By Bunny Tee (mdtapahed01-pool0-a239.mdtapa.tds.net - on Wednesday, August 02, 2006 - 9:47 am: Edit Post

I just saw this movie last night and thought it was completely awful! If there was intent to tell a tragic, but reprehensibly true story, it was an unmitigated failure. How dismally disappointing. It appeared to me, that "Susan" did indeed give herself up to what she perceived as an inevitable death by being torn to shreds. I think her facial expressions at the end of the film were supposed to convey the idea that a complete break with reality had set in and she was no longer able to cope with the constant shark menace after watching sharks consume her husband, just yards away. If this portrayal is anything remotely close to fact then the party guilty of abandoning these two people to such horrifying fate deserves to serve a long sentence as live shark bait. I hope the Outer Edge is no longer in operation. What negligent chumps.

By therealestsob (cpe-24-175-46-115.houston.res.rr.com - on Saturday, February 24, 2007 - 8:51 pm: Edit Post

Geoffrey Ian "Jack" Nairn deserves whatever hell has waiting for him......I hope he is aware of that he won't live forever and judgement will no longer be avoidable
if I was captain I would have admitted my failed position and accepted the punishment and lived everyday after promoting life not hiding behind lies and denied truth.......reality is truth and only love shall set you free

By Anonymous (cpe-60-226-237-195.sa.bigpond.net.au - on Monday, March 05, 2007 - 7:24 am: Edit Post

We just came back from our first trip to the reef. You now get a number and the boat won't move until all numbers are on board,two different people do the count each time to double check. It sounded strange that this could happpen at but after being on the reef I could see that it could have happened many times. We were in the sea by ourselves and went up every now and then to find the boat a long way away, quickly swam back to near the boat. The reef is so beautiful you don't realise how far you are travelling under water.This story is so sad and now I can see how it could happen. They try to make sure that it will never happen again.
I hope it never does.

By Steven Cargo (rtlg-d9b901f8.pool.mediaways.net - on Saturday, July 14, 2007 - 9:47 am: Edit Post

The wetsuit must have been removed!
There was only a tear in the buttocks of Eileen Lonergan's wetsuit, so where is her body! Her wetsuit was discovered, so she must have taken the wetsuit off?? It seems the shark/s only bit her buttocks, not eaten through the whole suit. If she was eaten by sharks, the wetsuit would be torn to pieces right? Any thoughts on this?

By Alan ( on Wednesday, January 16, 2008 - 11:45 pm: Edit Post

Listen Steven (14 July 2007)...wake up to yourself!! These two people were at the mercy of the ocean and its marine creatures (ie sharks).
You must be a fool to think that just because bodies didn't turn up that they somehow escaped death or faked the whole thing. More than likely they either drowned or were taken by sharks. You seriously think they conjured up this whole incident??Look at the evidence, mate! Boat came back without two passengers,personal belongings not collected, diving equipment being found afterwards (washed up and on the seabed),slate with a help message written on it.You need to read between the lines. What we have here is a terrible terrible tragedy. May they rest in peace.

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