August 1, 2004: Headlines: COS - Tuvalu: Scuba: Movies: Crime: New York Times: "Open Water" based on drowning deaths of Tuvalu RPCVs Thomas and Eileen Lonergan opens August 6

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Tuvalu: Special Report: The loss of Tuvalu RPCVs Tom and Eileen Lonergan: August 1, 2004: Headlines: COS - Tuvalu: Scuba: Movies: Crime: New York Times: "Open Water" based on drowning deaths of Tuvalu RPCVs Thomas and Eileen Lonergan opens August 6

By Admin1 (admin) ( - on Saturday, July 31, 2004 - 11:35 am: Edit Post

"Open Water" based on drowning deaths of Tuvalu RPCVs Thomas and Eileen Lonergan opens August 6

Open Water based on drowning deaths of Tuvalu RPCVs Thomas and Eileen Lonergan opens August 6

"Open Water" based on drowning deaths of Tuvalu RPCVs Thomas and Eileen Lonergan opens August 6

Dying at Sea. Probably.


Published: August 1, 2004

IN "Open Water," a vacationing couple surfaces from a scuba dive to find their tour boat has vanished. Left for hours amid circling sharks, one of the divers finally vents his rage at having been abandoned. "Unbelievable!" he screams.

Actually, it's not. The movie is loosely based on a real event: the 1998 stranding of two Americans off Australia's Great Barrier Reef. The filmmakers, both New Yorkers, are divers themselves and learned of the incident from a scuba newsletter. They borrowed the premise of an abandoned couple, but fictionalized the rest, in part because the true story had too many twists to seem credible on screen. "People watching would think, `There's no way this could happen, it's absurd,' " says Chris Kentis, who made the film with his wife, Laura Lau.

The real-life couple, Thomas and Eileen Lonergan, traveled to Australia after three years as Peace Corps teachers on the islands of Fiji and Tuvalu. Thomas was 33, Eileen 28; both were experienced divers. Australia was the first stop of a planned round-the-world trip before returning home to Louisiana.

Early on Jan. 25, 1998, the Lonergans rode a shuttle bus to a marina in Port Douglas, Queensland, where a company called Outer Edge Dive carried them and 24 others to the rim of the Great Barrier Reef, 40 miles offshore. The day's last dive was at a coral formation called "Fish City" because of its abundant marine life. While others followed a dive master, the Lonergans toured the site on their own.

At the end of the 40-minute dive, the crew was supposed to log each person's dive and count heads before the boat left. But several crew members were inexperienced and uncertain of their responsibilities. Amid this confusion, the Lonergans' dives weren't recorded and the head count was botched. The captain, believing he had all passengers aboard, motored back to Port Douglas.

 Open Water

A Scene from the Movie "Open Water"

After the passengers disembarked, a crew member found a dive bag and shoes, but assumed someone had left them by accident and would return to the dock to claim them. A shuttle bus driver called Outer Edge to say that two people hadn't shown up for the return trip to their hostel. This didn't set off alarms, either; perhaps the pair had made their own way back. Two days later, the Outer Edge skipper noticed the dive bag still unclaimed; inside it he found Mr. Lonergan's wallet. A call to their hostel revealed that the two had never returned. It was only then, more than 48 hours after the Lonergans' dive at Fish City, that the police finally learned the couple were missing. A weeklong search of the reef by air and sea failed to turn up any sign of them. The Lonergans were presumed to have drowned or been killed by tiger sharks, a fierce tropical species.

Then a series of strange discoveries raised doubts about the couple's fate. On a remote beach north of Port Douglas, Aborigines found scuba gear belonging to the Lonergans, including a buoyancy vest and tanks, which would have helped them stay afloat. There would have been no clear reason for the Lonergans to remove the equipment while still at sea, and the lack of visible tooth marks made it unlikely that a shark had removed it for them. Compounding the mystery was the presence of well-lighted diving platforms and coral outcrops within swimming distance of Fish City. The sea was glassy and warm on the day of the Lonergans' disappearance. Why hadn't the fit young couple swum to safety? Or hailed one of the tour boats and fishing craft that passed through the area?

Even more puzzling were the diaries found among the Lonergans' possessions. Two weeks before their last dive, Eileen wrote of her husband's "death wish," and the possibility that he might find himself "in the right place at the right time" to act on it. "I may get caught in that, too," she added. "It's a risk I take." Five months earlier, Tom wrote in his own diary: "I feel as though my life is complete and I'm ready to die." Paul Priest, the detective leading the police investigation, says the diary entries "seemed, on the face of it, an uncanny coincidence, almost prophetic." Perhaps Tom had committed a murder-suicide.

There was one more twist. The captain of another dive-boat, who visited the reef the day after the Lonergans went missing, told police that the head count on his return trip was several over the number he'd taken out. Also, he'd heard American voices among the all-Italian party on board. Could the Lonergans have staged their own disappearance, slipping from Outer Edge's boat and later boarding the Italians'? In apparent support of this theory, dozens of people called the police to say they'd seen the Lonergans at pubs and other places across Australia.

Detective Priest said recently, however, that his investigation had failed to turn up "one iota of evidence" that the Lonergans planned their own death or disappearance. It was true that the couple had stayed underwater beyond the prescribed time. But they couldn't anticipate that Outer Edge would botch the head count and leave them behind. Also, the Lonergans had left their money and passports behind and hadn't used any bank accounts since disappearing.


Thomas and Eileen Lonergan

Six months after the Lonergans' dive, yet another unlikely find seemed to close the case. In a coastal mangrove swamp, fishermen found a dive slate, designed for underwater writing. On it was a message from the Lonergans saying they'd been abandoned on the reef by Outer Edge. "Please help us," it said. "Find us soon before we die." They also scribbled the time and date: 8 a.m., Jan. 26, the morning after they had been left behind.

The boat's captain was later charged with manslaughter due to criminal negligence. After hearing conflicting accounts of who had done what on board the boat, the jury acquitted him. The company was later fined for breaching workplace health and safety rules because of its sloppy practices on the day of the Lonergans' dive, and it went out of business. Queensland's government also introduced stiffer regulations, for instance requiring that captains and dive masters independently confirm each head count.

But six years after the Lonergans' stranding, many Queenslanders still question the couple's fate. At a scuba-diving trade show in July, Col McKenzie, a dive industry representative who testified at the trial, drew maps, chatted with shark experts and demonstrated scuba gear to illustrate his belief that the Longerans had intentionally stayed down too long, then swum to a dive platform. "Tom was on the pontoon thinking: `I don't want to go home. We can disappear and start a new life,' " Mr. McKenzie says. "I think it's far more likely they're still alive than that they were taken by sharks."

Such speculation angers the Lonergans' families. Eileen's father, John Hains, attended the trial and says he accepted the verdict. In his view, the couple's stranding resulted from a series of failures by the entire crew. "For the captain to have taken the full load would have been an injustice," he says. "But I would have liked to see some way for a group to be held responsible." Mr. Hains was also distressed by the public airing of the Lonergans' diary entries, which he says were taken out of context and contradicted by other writing that expressed the couple's excitement about visiting the reef and later returning to the United States. "Some people in Australia can't accept that they died out there," he says, "so they make up stories and excuses."

To settle his own mind, Mr. Hains went snorkeling at Fish City to understand what the couple had faced. "It's easy to ask, `Why didn't they swim to safety?' " he says. "But at water level you can't see anything, and the current wears you out." Also, the Lonergans no doubt expected the boat to return. "Then it got dark. Can you imagine how terrified they were?" He suspects they became dehydrated and disoriented, which may account for their having taken off some equipment, and in the end succumbed to the sea or to sharks. "Eileen and Tom were obviously late coming up from their dive," Mr. Hains concludes. "But the punishment for being late shouldn't be death."

In the years since the Lonergans' abandonment, there have been several other instances of divers deserted at sea. The most recent occurred in April, when a diver was left 12 miles off Newport Beach, Calif., again after a flawed head count. His story, however, has a Hollywood ending. After five hours in the water, he was rescued by a passing boat filled with Boy Scouts.

Tony Horwitz, who is based in Australia, is the author of "Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before."

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Story Source: New York Times

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



By Anonymous ( - on Tuesday, August 15, 2006 - 6:03 am: Edit Post

Life, in and by itself, is beholden with gracious times and also sad times (sometimes they co-exist)! However, after watching this movie, "Open Waters", I discovered myself to be so grateful for the life that I have had thus far! It is a shame that there are people in our world that choose to think the worse of this young couple 9that they faked their deaths). We need to learn and re-evaluate our own lives as a result of seeing this movie. Carpe diem!!!!

By Anonymous ( - on Tuesday, August 29, 2006 - 2:14 pm: Edit Post

i have no idia wether they faced death or still liveing

By Anonymous ( - on Friday, March 21, 2008 - 11:25 am: Edit Post

what a SAD story. happened upon the movie when channel surfing(shark movies not my kind of film) however i came in at a point where it was just them alone in the water scanning the horizons..& to my own surprise stayed with the film until the end because it was done in a low-key way(not the usual hyper-sensationalism of hollywood)that made you feel like you were there with mind keeps going back to them all these months later...mostly because i keep thinking what must that experience have beeen like to go thru. how horrible & then to die in the end as well...& who knows how either of them actually died...why, one might wonder how they didn't just die of total terror when they looked around & found themselves alone like that in the ocean..what mental & emotional agony they must have suffered!! i never do these kind of internet postings but their story & horrid fate has touched me so deeply that when i read stupid stuff about them faking it, all i could do was wonder what kind of a human being(?) could even think like that! i hope some friends/family find their way to read my thoughts and i pray their grief has lessened somehow and that maybe my thoughts will bring a drop of solace to them

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