September 18, 2005: Headlines: Figures: COS - Tuvala: Crime: Scuba: CDNN: The True Story Behind Disturbing 'Open Water' Movie

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Tuvalu: Special Report: The loss of Tuvalu RPCVs Tom and Eileen Lonergan: February 9, 2005: Index: PCOL Exclusive: RPCVs Eileen and Tom Lonergan (Tuvalu) : September 18, 2005: Headlines: Figures: COS - Tuvala: Crime: Scuba: CDNN: The True Story Behind Disturbing 'Open Water' Movie

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The True Story Behind Disturbing 'Open Water' Movie

The True Story Behind Disturbing 'Open Water' Movie

In the inquest and subsequent trial of Jack Nairn on manslaughter charges, the speculation reached fever pitch. "The defence attorney used these diaries to absolutely slander, to absolutely destroy these two people's reputations," says Eileen's father, John Hains, who travelled to Cairns for the hearing. "I was disappointed in the verdict [in which Jack Nairn was found not guilty of manslaughter]. I felt like the jury didn't believe that they were dead, and to me that was the essence of the trial, was to prove that they had died."

The True Story Behind Disturbing 'Open Water' Movie

The True Story Behind Disturbing 'Open Water' Movie

In 1998, Tom and Eileen Lonergan disappeared off the Great Barrier Reef after a diving company accidentally left them behind in shark-infested waters. Their bodies were never found. David Fickling reports on the true story behind a disturbing new film...

Open Water Movie

The sun is bright and hot as you break surface. You squint to see the outline of a boat. After 40 minutes of scuba diving you feel disoriented. You paddle round to see whether the boat is behind you, but there is nothing: just calm, blue ocean, stretching to the horizon.

Such is the scenario of Open Water, the surprise hit of this year's Sundance film festival, which has also met with rave reviews across the American movie press. Shot on handheld digital cameras with a shoestring budget, it depicts the disintegration of a happy American couple after they are abandoned in shark-infested seas off the Bahamas during a dive holiday.

Tom and Eileen Lonergan
Tom and Eileen Lonergan
The promotional material boasts that the film is "based on true events", but its makers are now parrying questions about exactly which true events are involved. Yet few doubt that the inspiration is the case of Tom and Eileen Lonergan, American tourists who disappeared off Australia's Great Barrier Reef on January 25, 1998. The couple had wound up in Australia after several years of travelling round the world. They had met and married at Louisiana State University, where Eileen had taken up scuba diving and persuaded Tom to join in her hobby. For two years they had taught for the Peace Corps in the Pacific island country of Tuvalu, before spending a further year in Fiji.

They were planning to travel round the world before heading home, but first the couple were determined to visit the Barrier Reef. In Port Douglas, an upmarket diving and sailing town towards the end of the road north through Queensland, they decided to take a day trip on a 26-passenger boat, the Outer Edge. For A$160, the five crew would take them for three dives on the ribbon reefs, a stack of broad shoals that run along the seaward ramparts of the Barrier Reef, 40 miles offshore. On their third dive, round about 3pm, they headed off together and were last spotted swimming calmly 12m down. When they came to the surface after less than an hour underwater, the Outer Edge had gone.

Being left behind on a dive is not an instant death sentence. Paul Lucas, a tourist from Leicester with less than 10 dives under his belt, survived for 40 hours in stormy seas in January 2000, after he was left behind by a dive boat in northern New South Wales. A diver is wearing an inflatable lifejacket and has the air to inflate it in a tank strapped to their back. The danger in the blazing heat of tropical Queensland is that, without fresh water, someone floating in the middle of the ocean may dehydrate long before help can arrive.

The day after the incident the Outer Edge brought another tour party to the area, and one diver found six dive weights resting on the bottom. Oblivious to what had happened the previous day, a crew member described the find as a bonus.

At that point Tom and Eileen might still have been alive just a few miles away, using the empty dive belt to bind themselves together. They certainly appear to have survived the night: several months later a fisherman 100 miles north of the site found a dive slate which records their thoughts as dawn broke that morning. In a wobbly scrawl faded by months in the water, Tom Lonergan had written: "[Mo]nday Jan 26; 1998 08am. To anyone [who] can help us: We have been abandoned on A[gin]court Reef by MV Outer Edge 25 Jan 98 3pm. Please help us [come] to rescue us before we die. Help!!!"

Other clues offered tantalising glimpses of what might have happened. A wetsuit of Eileen's size washed up in north Queensland in early February; scientists measuring the speed of barnacle growth on its zip estimated that it was lost on January 26. Tears in the material around the buttocks and armpit had apparently been caused by coral.

Inflatable dive jackets marked with Tom and Eileen's names were later washed ashore north of Port Douglas, along with their tanks - still buoyed up by a few remnants of air - and one of Eileen's fins. None showed any signs of the damage you would expect from a violent end, suggesting that the couple were not the victim of a shark attack, as the film suggests. Experts at the inquest speculated that, drifting helplessly back and forth on the tides in the building heat of the tropical sun, the couple may have been driven delirious by dehydration and have voluntarily struggled out of their cumbersome outfits. Without the buoyancy provided by their dive jackets and wetsuits, they would not have been able to tread water for long.

Publicity surrounding the case spelled disaster for the Queensland dive industry. Nearly 50,000 people work in Queensland's Barrier Reef tourist trade, which is worth A$4.3bn and hosts nearly 4m day trips every year. High-profile horror stories could irrevocably taint the image of local operators. Worse still, this had not been simply an unavoidable accident. Dive boat crews are meant to count every diver into and out of the water and then carry out a further count when the boat leaves the dive site, but somehow the Lonergans had slipped through the net.

Outer Edge skipper Jack Nairn said that he had ordered a crew member to carry out the count, and that the numbers had become confused because two passengers had jumped into the water halfway through. In any case, no one seems to have noticed that two sets of diving gear were missing as the boat steamed back to Port Douglas, nor was any alarm raised the following day when the Outer Edge returned to the same spot. It was only two days later, when Nairn found a bag containing the Lonergans' wallet and passports on the boat, that the alarm was raised. By that time, Tom and Eileen would probably already have died.

The industry's damage-control mechanism was desperate and unpleasant. Rumours started spreading - many of them put about by the Outer Edge's owner, Tom Colrain - that there was more to the Lonergans' case than met the eye. Melancholy passages in the diaries of Tom and Eileen were raised as evidence that they had committed suicide, that he had killed her in a murder-suicide, even that they had faked their own deaths and sped off to a new life in another boat supposedly spotted nearby. Sightings of the Lonergans began pouring in from all over Australia.

In the inquest and subsequent trial of Jack Nairn on manslaughter charges, the speculation reached fever pitch. "The defence attorney used these diaries to absolutely slander, to absolutely destroy these two people's reputations," says Eileen's father, John Hains, who travelled to Cairns for the hearing. "I was disappointed in the verdict [in which Jack Nairn was found not guilty of manslaughter]. I felt like the jury didn't believe that they were dead, and to me that was the essence of the trial, was to prove that they had died."

Six years on, the names of Tom and Eileen Lonergan are still those most likely to shut down a Cairns conversation, so the release and publicity surrounding Open Water is far from welcome. Jack Nairn still lives in the area despite losing his business as a result of the publicity and debts surrounding his trial. He initially refused to talk about the case, and would only discuss how the fallout from the case had affected him. "The reality of it is that the thing creates emotional turmoil for all of the people involved," he says. "It's incredibly unsettling and stressful for myself and my children, and for us it's a terrible thing that [Open Water] has been made. This is really very bad for the industry as a whole."

Nairn's concerns about the impact of the film on tourism are not surprising, given the Queensland dive industry's struggle to rebuild its squeaky-clean image in the wake of the Lonergans' deaths. In a check on 59 dive shops by Queensland health and safety inspectors in 2002, a total of 76 notices were issued for failure to do proper head counts, dive logs or lookouts - the main issues highlighted three years earlier in the Lonergan inquest.

Hains has no truck with the release of Open Water. "As far as the movie's concerned we're not interested. We won't see it," he says. Yet remarkably, he holds no grudge against the crew and passengers on the Outer Edge. "I don't have any hard feelings against anybody, because it was an accident," he says. His only disappointment is that among all the equipment washed up on the shores of north Queensland, there was never a trace of his daughter's body. "It leaves a big hole in you to lose your kid, that's part of your life. I wish they had found them, so we had something. I suppose we have the Great Barrier Reef. They're part of that."

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Story Source: CDNN

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


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