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A mystery resurfaces in deaths of Tuvalu RPCVs Tom and Eileen Lonergan
A mystery resurfaces in deaths of Tuvalu RPCVs Tom and Eileen Lonergan
A mystery resurfaces
August 7, 2004
Caption: A vest that had belonged to Mr Lonergan, which was found by police washed up on a beach.
The fate of Tom and Eileen Lonergan, who vanished while diving on the Great Barrier Reef, is now a film, writes Daniel Foggo.
Their faces peer out gleefully from behind diving masks as the young couple watch vast shoals of colourful, fish parade before them. Trailed by streams of bubbles from their aqualungs, they explore the intricate coral reef before surfacing. They are looking forward to sharing the experience with the two-dozen other members of the group on the boat.
The boat, however, is not there. It has set off for the distant 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 storyline for Open Water, which is due to be released in Australia in October. But overshadowing the 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 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 were never found.
In America, Open Water was highly acclaimed after previews at the Seattle and Sundance film festivals. It is being billed as "The Blair Witch Project meets Jaws", and with good reason. As with Blair Witch, a low-budget horror film that shook audiences with its lifelike, almost documentary style when it was released four years ago, Open Water conveys a feeling of reality that has chilled reviewers.
The use of a bobbing camera gives audiences a diver's view from the water and 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 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 50 kilometres 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 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.
A vest that had belonged to Mr Lonergan, which was found by police washed up on a beach.
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, Graham Houston, the counsel for the operators of the Outer Edge, the boat that left without 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", and 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 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, however when items of the Lonergans' diving gear were found, apparently washed up on a beach more than 100 kilometres north west of where the couple had been seen last. There were no bite marks on any of it.
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 that 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 lifebuoy nearby that 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 fuelled theories that the couple faked their own deaths. 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.
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, dismissed by rational observers of the case, but the talk persists nonetheless.
- Daily Telegraph