August 3, 2004: Headlines: COS - Tuvala: Crime: Scuba: London Daily Mail: Tom and Eileen Lonergan: Dead in the Water

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Tuvalu: Special Report: The loss of Tuvalu RPCVs Tom and Eileen Lonergan: August 3, 2004: Headlines: COS - Tuvala: Crime: Scuba: London Daily Mail: Tom and Eileen Lonergan: Dead in the Water

By Admin1 (admin) ( - on Friday, August 13, 2004 - 6:51 pm: Edit Post

Tom and Eileen Lonergan: Dead in the Water

Tom and Eileen Lonergan: Dead in the Water

Tom and Eileen Lonergan: Dead in the Water


Aug 3, 2004

London Daily Mail

by Richard Shears

WITH a final glance at the spectacular surroundings, Tom Lonergan raised his thumb to his wife, Eileen, to indicate it was time to head back to the surface. She looked at her air pressure gauge and nodded reluctantly.

The two divers had spent 40 minutes or so gliding through the breathtaking valleys of the Great Barrier Reef, admiring the coral stretched out like the branches of a submerged forest, and the shoals of Earlier, British diver Bryan Brogdan had shared their delight as they admired a giant clam embedded in the reef, the blue waters illuminated by shafts of sunlight. Then Brogdan had left them to return to the boat.

He would be the last person to see them alive.

It was Tom and Eileen's third and final dive on the reef that day. Both were experienced divers, but they had stayed down longer than the crew on their dive boat had instructed.

It was time to ascend and clamber back on board for the return trip to Port Douglas, a town in Queensland on Australia's east coast.

They broke the surface. Nothing had changed since they'd begun their dive: the cloudless sky above them, the fierce intensity of the high summer sun, and, in the far distance, the shadowy outline of the coast discovered by Captain Cook 220 years earlier.

But where was the dive boat, the Outer Edge? They tore off their masks, pulled the air regulators from their mouths and twisted 360 degrees in the water, again and again, frantically scanning the horizon. Then they multicoloured fish.

turned to each other, panic and disbelief in their eyes. Surely this wasn't happening.

We can only guess what raced through the minds of 34-year-old Tom Lonergan and his 28-year- old wife at that heart- stopping moment - and shudder at the fate that awaited them.

Now a terrifying new film, Open Water, pieces together what probably happened to the young American couple left to fend for themselves in the shark-infested sea.

The film, which opens here in September, is said to be so frightening that it will 'fry your nerves to a frazzle' and, like Jaws, will put people off entering the sea for years to come.

Set in the Bahamas rather than on the Great Barrier Reef, the director subjected the actors to an ordeal intended to capture the Lonergans' panic and fear. Cameras were fixed to buoys so that cinema-goers can share the eye-level drama as real sharks circled them (although bloodied pieces of tuna were tossed into the sea to ensure the sharks had an alternative food source).

But can any film really recreate Tom and Eileen's agony as, increasingly exhausted, dehydrated and disoriented after hours in the open sea, they spotted shark fins breaking the surface?

The bodies of the adventure-loving couple have never been found - just a mangled wetsuit and some of their equipment - and six years on, rumours about their fate are still hotly debated in Port Douglas.

The Lonergans drowned; sharks got them; they faked their deaths and disappeared; they committed suicide together; Tom killed Eileen and then killed himself; they were whisked away by the CIA . . . few disappearances have generated so many fanciful theories. But then, being left behind in a shark-infested sea is a scenario the Queensland dive industry has never wanted to accept.

The Lonergans' disappearance made headlines around the world and damaged the multimillion dollar tourist trade that centres on the Great Barrier Reef. Now the new film is reopening old wounds.

Jack Nairn, the former skipper of the Outer Edge, has for years declined to talk about the terrible day the Lonergans disappeared.

But this week, he spoke to the Mail.

'This has been a nightmare from day one, and now it is all going to come back again. I fear it is never going to end for me,' he said.

He still insists the boat's logbook showed that Tom and Eileen came back on board after their final dive.

The available evidence, however, suggests otherwise. It seems that the boat left without the Lonergans.

TOM Lonergan, a balding chemical engineer, and dark-haired Eileen, had married in their home town of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, nine years previously.

Seeking adventure, they joined the U.S.

Peace Corps in 1995 and were assigned work as teachers in the poverty-stricken Pacific islands of Tuvalu and Fiji. In January 1998, they left for Australia - the last stop on their great adventure before returning to the U.S.

On Sunday, January 25, they took the hour-long coach journey from Cairns to Port Douglas, where they boarded the Outer Edge for the voyage to St Crispin Reef, 38 miles offshore.

They enjoyed two 40-minute dives, and later prepared for a third dive at a site known as Fish City because of its abundance of underwater life.

Around 3pm, when everyone should have been back on board, Jack Nairn asked crew member George Pyrohiw to do a headcount - a vital practice that should have been conducted with the greatest care.

Twenty-six people should have been on board. But as Pyrohiw was counting, two divers jumped into the water to take last-minute photos. Pyrohiw told Nairn he'd counted only 24.

According to Pyrohiw, the skipper then said: 'And two in the water makes 26.' Mr Nairn disputes this, but in any case, it seems that the two passengers who jumped overboard were counted twice.

After the Outer Edge docked at Port Douglas late that afternoon and the passengers disembarked, the crew noticed that two dive bags remained on board. They were simply moved to another part of the boat; the crew assumed the owners would ring once they realised they'd left them behind.

Mistake after mistake followed. In addition to the bags, an inventory showed the boat was missing two air tanks and two weightbelts - but no one queried this.

Norm Stigant, the driver whose job was to take passengers back to their hotels, told his boss that the Lonergans had not shown up for the ride, but was urged not to worry and eventually left without them.

Night closed in. The Lonergans were still out there . . . and no one knew.

THE following day, the Outer Edge returned to St Crispin Reef with new passengers, its crew still unaware of the tragedy that had occurred. Divers descended to marvel at the fish - and within a short time had spotted and retrieved two weight-belts on the seabed.

The find provoked no action or comment.

Another day went by, and the Outer Edge took out a new boatload of passengers and then returned to Port Douglas for the second time since the Lonergans' fateful dive.

But there were still the unclaimed dive bags on the boat, and at last skipper Jack Nairn decided to open them. He found a wallet and ID documents, and a shirt that Tom Lonergan had been wearing on the day of the dive trip.

Realising something was terribly wrong, he reached for the phone.

It was now 51 hours since the Lonergans had last been seen. They had not returned to their hotel, and police soon discovered their credit cards had not been used.

A huge air and sea search was mounted, but no trace of the couple was found.

Ten days later, Tom's buoyancy jacket, with his name neatly printed on the pocket, was found 50 miles north of St Crispin Reef.

A green and grey wetsuit, believed to be Eileen's, was later washed up. It had jagged tears in the buttocks area, presumed to have been caused by a shark. Her buoyancy jacket, hood, fins and air tank eventually washed ashore, too.

But it was six months before the ocean yielded its most sickening legacy. In July, a fisherman 90 miles north of St Crispin Reef hauled in a slate that divers use to write notes to each other underwater.

On it was a faded cry for help which read: 'Monday, January 26, 1998. 8am.

To anyone who can help us. We have been abandoned here by the Outer Edge.

Please help us or we will die. Tom and Eileen Lonergan.' Experts have been unable to agree if the find is genuine or a cruel hoax. But if they had indeed written it, it confirmed that they had survived the first night among the killer sharks. But after that . .?

AFTER realising the boat had left without them, the Lonergans would have expected someone to soon realise that they were not on board, and come back for them.

Even if their absence wasn't noted until the boat reached Port Douglas, surely the missing dive equipment and their unclaimed bags would raise the alarm? And what about the driver waiting to take them back to their hotel - surely he was bound to make inquiries?

The water was warm, and they were young and fit; all they needed to do was stay calm and wait it out. Their wetsuits and almost empty air tanks would keep them buoyant.

But as the sun disappeared and an evening breeze picked up, Tom and Eileen would have started to worry. Rescue was a long time coming. . . could it be that no one had realised they were missing?

Various theories as to what happened next were put forward during the investigation and the coroner's inquest.

According to some experts, the discarded weight-belts suggested that they may have tried to swim the two-and-a-half miles to a stationary pontoon, where dive boats moored and which was illuminated at night.

However, even if they had spotted the lights of the pontoon, they would have struggled against strong currents to reach it. And anyway, why had no dive boats or fishing boats moored there overnight heard their shouts for help?

At what point had the Lonergans first thought about sharks? As experienced divers they would have known that silhouetted from beneath, a diver resembles a seal or a large turtle - perfect shark bait.

If Tom and Eileen did survive that first night, by dawn they would have been desperate. Thirst and exhaustion would have taken their toll, and delirium would have started to scramble their senses. But the new day would have renewed their hopes - surely they would be spotted by tourist boats coming out to the reef?

shark expert Ben Cropp is convinced the couple were victims of a tiger shark, 'a horrible feeding machine', which would have circled them for hours before moving in for the kill.

It would have picked them off individually, shredding, tearing, filling the sea with their blood as Tom or Eileen - whoever was the victim-in-waiting - watched in horror and prepared to die.

There were dozens of sharks around the reef at the time, according to local fisherman Mick Bird, who was a few miles away that day. 'Every time we threw a line, we'd pull in a shark - they should rename that place Shark City,' he said.

The fact that no bodies or body parts were ever found allowed scores of cruel rumours to grow around the Lonergans' disappearance. Certainly, Queensland police found themselves following up a string of curious clues.

Journals found in the couple's room at the hostel in Cairns hinted at personal troubles.

'I feel as though my life is complete and I'm ready to die,' Tom had written on August 3, 1997, when he and Eileen were working as teachers in Fiji.

'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.' Disturbingly, just 16 days before the couple disappeared, Eileen wrote: 'Tom hopes to die a quick and fairly painly [believed to mean painless] 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.' Was she suggesting he might kill her and himself? Is that what had happened at sea?

Detective Sergeant Paul Priest admitted at an inquest a few months after the couple's disappearance that he had initially found the diaries 'chillingly bizarre' and 'prophetic', but he had eventually dismissed them as the private musings of an introspective couple.

Tony Glynn, the lawyer who defended Jack Nairn when he was charged with (and later found not guilty of) manslaughter, suggested that the diary excerpts painted a picture of a man - with a willing wife - who was fed up with his old life and wanted to 'disappear' so he could start a new one.

Indeed, no less than nine people told police they had seen the Americans after their disappearance.

Police checked every report and found each to be without substance. 'They were "Elvis spottings",' said a police officer.

And like Elvis, no doubt, the rumours will continue.

But in Port Douglas, they are anxious to lay the tragedy to rest now. 'It's time to move on,' says Kathy Traverso, a dive instructor who was on the Outer Edge that fateful day.

'The truth is, we will never know what really happened to the Lonergans.'

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Story Source: London Daily Mail

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



By Anonymous ( - on Sunday, February 11, 2007 - 2:36 pm: Edit Post

The boat captain is 100% to blame and stop cooking up these nonsense alternative theories and own up to what happened.

By Molly Daniels ( - on Monday, May 07, 2007 - 7:36 pm: Edit Post

How awful for the families of these poor individuals to have to endure those ridiculous theories and slanderous rumors, coupled with the loss of their children! My heart goes out to them, I'm sure they have imagined their loved ones suffering endless times.

By JD Vehorn ( - on Saturday, March 22, 2008 - 2:47 pm: Edit Post

As usual the people lining their pockets with $$ refuse to accept responsibility for the deaths of these two young people. On the whole human beings are a disgusting lot of selfish liars that will blame innocent victims rather than own up to the truth. May these two sad souls RIP.

By KiXeN ( - on Monday, May 05, 2008 - 2:28 am: Edit Post

I watched this Movie Open Water, Based of this and its really heat stopping to think how this could happen Im never going to be normal after seeing this movie can you really manage dieing like this?

Just how the ending happen where she just gives up and desides to let go under it just hit the heat to have a movie based off a true story to think how they died, man thats really bad my heart go's out to them and there familes thats just a bad way to have to die, You have to be scard the one time knowing your life is about to end, I figured they were going to get rescued but found out they died thats just deeply sadding go out for fun and this kinda stuff happens it really will make you think before you wanna do stuff like this.

By carolyn adele williams ( on Thursday, October 21, 2010 - 12:34 pm: Edit Post

I went to school w/Eileen in Saudi Arabia in the eighties and can only imagine how horrific this has been for the family and I think it is HORRIBLE that these stories were concocked just to save their own skin! I will NEVER go scuba diving or put my lifein someone's hands,that is absolutely apalling that they allowed and have continued to allow this kind of practice to perpetuate! Sad,I don't know how they slept at night knowing the pain,agony,and trauma they caused,and then to top it all off they failed to own up to it,just tragic! My heart goes out to the families who lost their loved ones!

By cait from seattle wa usa ( on Thursday, July 07, 2011 - 1:13 am: Edit Post

That boat captain and every hand on board should have been found guilty and punished for this horrible oversight, resulting in the deaths of these two people. Think about the fear and horror of it all. And if they WERE taken by sharks, it is just unimaginable. And no one would take responsibility? And the boat captain was found innocent???

I've thought about the Lonergan's occasionally throughout the years, may they rest in peace.

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