Disappearance of Tom and Eileen Lonergan

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Undated photo of Tom and Eileen Lonergan

Thomas Joseph Lonergan (born December 28, 1964)[1] and Eileen Cassidy Lonergan (née Hains; born March 3, 1969)[2] were a married American couple who were mistakenly stranded in the Coral Sea off Australia's northeast coast on January 25, 1998, during a group scuba diving outing. Their absences were not noted by the boat crew until two days later, on January 27, and while search efforts resulted in the discovery of personal effects presumed to be those of the Lonergans, they did not lead to their discovery. Their whereabouts are unknown, though both are presumed deceased.[3]

The couple's disappearance and deaths resulted in a "a crisis of confidence in north Queensland's dive industry" and resulted in tighter mandatory safety regulations for diving boats in Australia.[4] Their disappearances also served as the inspiration for the 2003 film Open Water.

Background[edit]

Thomas Joseph Lonergan and Eileen Hains, both graduates of Louisiana State University,[5] were married in Jefferson, Texas on June 24, 1988.[6]

Disappearance[edit]

On January 25, 1998, the Lonergans were scuba diving with a group at St. Crispin's Reef[7] in Australia's Great Barrier Reef. The boat that had transported the group to the dive site departed before the Lonergans returned from the water. None of the vessel's crew or passengers noticed that the two had not come back aboard.

At the time of the incident, the couple had recently completed a two-year tour of duty with the Peace Corps at Funafuti atoll in the small South Pacific island nation of Tuvalu and were repeating that work in Fiji.[5]

Aftermath[edit]

The pair was not discovered missing until two days later, on January 27, 1998, after a bag containing their belongings was found on board the dive boat. A massive air and sea search took place over the following three days.

In February 1998, a women's wetsuit matching Eileen's size washed ashore in north Queensland.[5] Upon examination of barnacle growth on the wetsuit, it was determined it had likely been submerged in the ocean since January.[5] It also bore tears along buttock and armpit area, presumed by examiners to have resulted from coming in contact with coral.[5]

Six months after the disappearance, in June 1998, more of the couple's diving gear was found washed up on a Port Douglas beach approximately 75 miles (121 km) from where they were lost.[8] Among these items were inflatable dive jackets marked with the Lonergans' names, along with oxygen tanks and one of Eileen's fins.[5] Also recovered was a weathered diver's slate (a device used for communicating underwater) which reportedly read: "Monday 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 to rescue us before we die. Help!!!"[5]

Suspicions[edit]

Several theories were suggested surrounding their disappearance. At the time, it was suggested that the Lonergans might have staged their disappearance. However, the Lonergans' bank accounts were never touched and their insurance policies were not claimed.[8]

Another theory suggested that the pair committed suicide, or murder-suicide. This theory was bolstered by entries found in both victims' diaries. Excerpts from Tom's personal diary were used to portray a deeply disturbed man who was looking for a "quick and peaceful" death. Eileen's writings had expressed concern for her well-being, given Tom's "death wish". She had openly chosen to stay with Tom, no matter the outcome.[9] However, the diary entries were taken out of context, according to Eileen's parents and family members.[10][11] The family, the coroner Noel Nunan, and the Port Douglas police claim that only pages that would validate the suicide theory were leaked to the press, whereas the majority of the diaries remain unread except by the coroner, Port Douglas police, and the Hains family.

Eileen's father, John Hains, later said that he suspects the couple ultimately became dehydrated and disoriented and in the end succumbed to drowning or sharks.[11] During the inquest on the deaths, experts speculated that, based on the state of the gear recovered, the couple had not likely experienced an animal attack, but rather succumbed to delirium resulting from dehydration, which caused them to voluntarily remove their diving outfits.[5] Without the buoyancy provided by their gear, experts testified the couple would have been unable to tread water for long, and would have soon drowned.[5]

The coroner dismissed suggestions that the Lonergans had either committed suicide or faked their own disappearance, and formally charged Jack Nairn, skipper of the dive boat, with their unlawful killing.[12] He was later found not guilty,[13] but his company was fined after pleading guilty to negligence and went out of business. Queensland's government also introduced stiffer regulations, among which was the requirement that captains and dive masters independently confirm each head count.[8]

Media[edit]

The 2003 movie Open Water claims to be based on the Lonergans' disappearance.[14] In the film, all names are changed, but there is a strong resemblance to the Lonergans' story.

The documentary Crime Stories: Deep Secret also featured the story of the Lonergans.

Their disappearances were referenced in a game titled Stranded Deep, in which a diver's slate can be found with an exact copy of the message that was on the real slate recovered during the Search and Rescue mission.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "United States Public Records, 1970-2009" (22 May 2014). Thomas J. Lonergan, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, United States. Retrieved May 14, 2019.
  2. ^ "United States Public Records, 1970-2009" (23 May 2014), Eileen C. Hains, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, United States. Retrieved May 13, 2019.
  3. ^ Squires, Nick (26 May 2008). "Divers who survived night on Great Barrier Reef 'to blame' for ordeal". The Daily Telegraph. Archived from the original on 22 April 2014. Retrieved 14 May 2019.
  4. ^ Davison, Ben, ed. (2005). "Tom and Eileen Lonergan". Undercurrent. Larkspur, California: Elephant Socks Pub. 20: 13. ISSN 1095-1555.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i Fickling, David (23 July 2004). "The cruel sea". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 3 October 2017.
  6. ^ "Texas Marriages, 1966-2010" (December 6, 2014). Thomas J. Lonergan and Eileen C. Hains, 24 June 1988; citing Jefferson, Texas, United States, certificate number 062898, Vital Statistics Unit, Texas Department of State Health Services, Austin. Retrieved May 14, 2019.
  7. ^ McGeogh, Paul (30 January 1998). "Checks not made on couple who dived alone". The Sydney Morning Herald.
  8. ^ a b c Daley, Jason (1 October 2003). "Watery grave". Outside. Archived from the original on 23 December 2015.
  9. ^ Foggo, Daniel. “A mystery resurfaces”. The Daily Telegraph (Sydney) - (c/o the Age). August 7, 2004
  10. ^ Chipperfield, Mark. "Coral reef couple 'faked dive deaths'". The London Daily Telegraph. Sunday 26 April 1998
  11. ^ a b Horwitz, Tony (1 August 2004). "Dying at sea, probably". The New York Times.
  12. ^ "Missing divers 'unlawfully killed' ". news.bbc.co.uk
  13. ^ "Death of Two American Divers - Thomas and Eileen Lonergan". michaelmcfadyensscuba.info
  14. ^ "Hollywood's 'Open Water' film earns rave reviews". cdnn.info. Archived from the original on 12 October 2008.

External links[edit]