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Movie made based on drowning deaths of Tuvala RPCVs Tom and Eileen Lonergan
Movie made based on drowning deaths of Tuvala RPCVs Tom and Eileen Lonergan
Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the cinema ...
After a spate of risible shark films, along comes one of the same terrifying calibre as Jaws and all the more chilling as Daniel Foggo finds because of the true story behind its screenplay
Their faces peer out gleefully from behind diving masks as the young couple watch vast shoals of colourful, intriguing fish parade before them. Trailed by streams of bubbles from their aqua-lungs, they leisurely explore the intricate coral reef before surfacing 40 minutes later, full of wonderment.
They are looking forward to hauling themselves up on their tour guide's pleasure boat and enthusing endlessly about the undersea experience with the two dozen other members of the dive group who have shared it with them.
The boat, however, is not there. It has set off for the distant, invisible shore, leaving the couple floating on the surface abandoned to their fate. Within hours, the sharks begin to circle and a grisly end appears certain.
This is the terrifying storyline for a new film, Open Water, which is due to be released in Britain in September. But overshadowing the relentlessly harrowing images on screen is the fact that the script is based on the true story of Tom and Eileen Lonergan, an American couple who were stranded in the ocean off the Queensland coast of Australia six years ago after the operators of their tour boat miscounted the number of divers on board and set off without them.
The boat's crew only realised its mistake two days later when they found some of the Lonergans' property on board. Despite a widespread search by the police and navy, the Lonergans - or their bodies - were never found.
In America, where it was highly acclaimed after previews at the Seattle and Sundance film festivals, Open Water is already being hailed as a cinematic tour de force and a certain worldwide hit. It is billed as "The Blair Witch Project meets Jaws", and with good reason.
As with Blair Witch, a low-budget horror film which shook audiences with its lifelike, almost documentary style when it was released four years ago, Open Water conveys a feeling of reality which has chilled reviewers.
The use of a bobbing camera gives audiences a diver's eye view from the water as well as a graphic idea of how it would feel to be floating on an apparently benign and gentle ocean swell, only to submerge momentarily to find yourself surrounded by a horde of malevolent grey shapes.
It is chillingly authentic; all the more so because the lead actors, the relatively unknown Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis, spent more than 120 hours in the water 20 miles off Barbados amid all kinds of sea life - including the real bull sharks and grey reef sharks used in the scenes.
Wearing chain mail under their wetsuits, the actors bobbed in the water while shark experts and the filmmakers manipulated their co-stars' movements by throwing chunks of bloody tuna near them.
It is undeniably gripping, but made all the more so by the controversy surrounding the fate of the Lonergans. Even today, six years after their disappearance, there is still fierce debate over exactly how and why the two holidaying teachers, who were originally from Louisiana but lived in Fiji, came to find themselves adrift at a spot on the Great Barrier Reef known as Fish City, 38 nautical miles off the north eastern tip of Australia.
In a series of sensational court cases after their disappearance on January 25, 1998, suggestions were made that their abandonment had not been an accident and that the couple had engineered it to commit suicide or provide a cover for them to begin a new life.
At an inquest later that year into their supposed deaths, Graham Houston, the counsel for the operators of the Outer Edge, the boat which abandoned them, drew gasps from the gallery when he mooted the concept of a double suicide or even the possibility that Mr Lonergan murdered his wife before ending his own life.
At first, it seemed an outlandish concept but then excerpts from diaries written by Tom, 34, and Eileen, 29, shortly before their disappearance were read out in court.
On August 3, 1997, less than six months before the fateful trip on the Outer Edge, Mr Lonergan wrote in an entry: "Like a student who has finished an exam I feel that my life is complete and I am ready to die. As far as I can tell, from here my life can only get worse. It has peaked and it's all downhill from here until my funeral." The entry was in character with the rest of his diary.
He and his wife had joined the US Peace Corps in the early 1990s and moved to Fiji to teach underprivileged children. Both, however, hated their jobs.
Mr Lonergan wrote that he had "had enough of casting pearls before swine", while his wife recorded in her diary that she didn't like her students and hated teaching.
Mr Lonergan, seemingly depressed, also wrote of how upset his mother had been with him for turning his back on his Catholic faith and eloping with Eileen.
On January 9, 1998, just two weeks before their diving trip, Mrs Lonergan wrote a particularly alarming entry: "[Tom] hopes to die a quick and painly [sic] death, and he hopes it happens soon. Tom's not suicidal, but he's got a death wish that could lead him to what he desires and I could get caught in that."
She also wrote of how their relationship had entered a new and unhealthy phase: "Our lives are so entwined now and we are hardly two individuals. I am still Eileen, but I am mostly Eileen and Tom. He is mostly Tom and Eileen. Where we are now goes beyond dependence, beyond love."
Since there is no disputing the fact that the crew of the Outer Edge did miscalculate the number of divers back on board before setting off, any suicidal plans of the Lonergans would have had to rely on an unforeseen and genuine mistake.
To most minds, such a coincidence would seem extremely unlikely.
The mystery deepened further, however, when items of the Lonergans' diving gear were found, apparently washed up on a beach more than 60 miles north west of where the couple had been seen last.
There were no bite marks on any of it. Col McKenzie, a spokesman for Dive Queensland, the organisation that represents many of the companies in the £1.7 billion marine tourism industry on Australia's eastern seaboard, is convinced that the Lonergans were not eaten by sharks.
"We found the dive gear with no abrasions in it, no teeth marks in it, and the clips done up on the buoyancy compensators [the jackets that allow the divers to alter their depth and float on the surface]," he said. "That's not indicative of a shark attack.
"When we found the equipment, there were a lot of unanswered questions. Why were the regulators [the mouthpiece that a diver breathes through] unscrewed from the top of the tanks? And why would you take the regulator off the tank when it still had air in it?
"There were a lot of very inconsistent things with having a shark attack. Someone suggested that they committed suicide. I honestly don't know but I I can strongly say they didn't die from shark attack."
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mr McKenzie is also dreading the release of Open Water, which he anticipates will cause a significant downturn in dive tourism.
"When Jaws came out I owned a dive shop and we may as well not have bothered opening the doors," he said. "The first week it hit the cinemas everybody was stunned, it was absolutely amazing. I was taking less in a month than I would have taken in a week.
"The revisiting of something like this and the associated publicity is going to be very stressful for the real victims, who are the Lonergans' family and the crew. So, it's a tragedy for the family but also for the industry."
Also found on a beach was a slate used for writing messages to other divers. On one side was inconsequential scribble dealing with technical diving matters which was positively identified as Mr Lonergan's handwriting.
On the other side was a simple message. Dated 8am on January 26, the day after they were last seen, it read: "Can anyone help, we have been abandoned by Outer Edge at Agincourt Reef. Please help us before we die."
The writing could not, however, be definitively identified as belonging to the couple.
Questions were also raised over why the couple had apparently ignored a large life buoy nearby which was easily visible from the water. Although Mr Lonergan had poor eyesight, his wife had no such problem.
The presence of an "unidentified" game-fishing boat observed roaring away from the dive site on the afternoon of the disappearance and more than 20 "sightings" of the Lonergans in the months after the incident have fulled theories that the couple faked their own deaths.
Once, they were apparently spotted browsing in a bookshop in Port Douglas, northern Queensland, and on another occasion they were allegedly seen at a service station in Darwin.
This theory has them as CIA agents using their jobs with the Peace Corps as a cover, stumbling across sensitive information before either faking their own deaths and going on the run or their spy bosses doing it and giving them new identities in America for their own protection.
Then there is the conspiracy theory that the two supposed CIA agents turned traitor and were assassinated by their own side to prevent vital secrets being leaked.
In the country pubs of northern Queensland, even alien abduction has not been ruled out definitively as an explanation of the Lonergans' whereabouts. Such fantasies are, of course, dimissed by rational observers of the case, but the talk persists none the less.
Noel Nunan, the coroner at the inquest, was unimpressed by the theory that the couple, who had only £30,000 life insurance, had faked their own deaths.
He did, however, feel that the captain of the boat, Geoff "Jack" Nairn, should face trial for manslaughter. After the hearing in 1999, during which the jury was asked to consider all the Lonergans' diary evidence, Mr Nairn was acquitted of the charge. He now runs another dive boat and does not talk about the events of six years ago.
Despite the numerous alternative theories, many Australians believe that the holidaying couple were indeed taken by sharks. Such attacks are not unknown. After all, Bradley Smith, a surfer, was killed by two sharks believed to be Great Whites off the Western Australian coast last week.
Ben Cropp, an author and underwater documentary maker, said tiger sharks were the most likely culprit in the Lonergans' deaths. "They just circle and watch," he said. "They may do this for an hour before moving closer and may follow you for another hour before they take that first bite. And then you don't have a hope because they have made up their mind."
The decisiveness of hungry sharks has never been a subject of doubt. However, the true fate of Tom and Eileen Lonergan, two of their possible victims, will remain a mystery.