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Eileen and Tom Lonergan, The Couple Who Shared a Watery Grave

The mystery of the Lonergans remains unsolved to date
The mystery of the Lonergans remains unsolved to date

Imagine the scenario Drifting in the vast expanse of the ocean, a diver emerges from the depths to find their vessel absent from the horizon. Desperately, they cry out for aid, but the eerie silence of the open sea is their only reply. No craggy formations extend from the water’s surface, offering a precarious refuge. In this dire situation, one can only cling to the slim hope that someone will realize the grave error before it’s too late. Such was the presumed fate of Eileen and Tom Lonergan on that fateful day of January 25, 1998, amidst the azure waters of St. Crispin’s Reef, a renowned diving locale nestled within the majestic Great Barrier Reef, approximately 25 nautical miles off the sun-kissed coast of Queensland, Australia. Hailing from the vibrant city of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the Lonergans were seasoned divers, well-acquainted with the wonders of the underwater world. Their expedition had commenced aboard the Outer Edge, a reputable scuba vessel operating out of Port Douglas, Queensland.

Accounts of the events that followed may vary, shrouded in the fog of uncertainty and disbelief. However, as twilight descended upon the tranquil seas, the crew of the Outer Edge conducted a meticulous head count, tallying the souls aboard their vessel. They somehow made a grave mistake of not accounting for two of their clients. With all apparent passengers back on board, the Outer Edge set its course homeward, bound for the safety of port. Two sunsets later, Geoffrey Nairn, the seasoned skipper of the Outer Edge, stumbled upon a disquieting revelation. Amongst the vessel’s assorted lost possessions lay the intimate relics of Eileen and Tom Lonergan—a collection including Tom’s wallet, spectacles, and garments. Fearing the worst, Nairn urgently reached out to the proprietor of the Gone Walkabout Hostel, nestled in the bustling Cairns, seeking solace in the possibility of the couple’s safe return to their lodgings. Alas, fate offered no reprieve; Eileen and Tom had never returned to the hotel after their dive session. And they never would.

Who Were Eileen and Tom Lonergan?

On January 25, 1998, Thomas Lonergan, aged 34, and his spouse Eileen, aged 28, embarked on a journey from their accommodations at a Cairns backpackers’ hostel. Their destination was Port Douglas, where they had reservations for a diving expedition aboard the renowned charter vessel, Outer Edge. Hailing from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the Lonergans had recently concluded a noble tenure as Peace Corps volunteers stationed in the idyllic confines of Tuvalu, nestled in the South Pacific. Taking advantage of a brief respite before returning stateside, the couple had set their sights on exploring the enchanting depths of the Great Barrier Reef. Upon reaching Port Douglas, they eagerly boarded the Outer Edge, a sturdy vessel spanning approximately 12 meters in length and boasting a capacity to accommodate a minimum of 26 passengers. Under the adept leadership of owner Geoffrey Ian “Jack” Nairn, the Outer Edge charted its course towards the alluring waters of St Crispin Reef, a breathtaking expanse situated some 38 nautical miles northeast of Port Douglas. With a full complement of 26 passengers, the vessel set anchor, offering the Lonergans and their fellow adventurers an opportunity to partake in the marvels of the underwater world.

The Lonergans, seasoned divers in their own right, opted to explore the depths independently, informing one of the onboard diving instructors, Ms. Katherine Traverso, of their intentions to “go off and do their own thing,” as recounted by fellow diver Mr. Richard Triggs of Cairns, whose observations were cited in media coverage of the subsequent inquiry. Notably, Mr. Triggs lauded the operational standards of Outer Edge, hailing it as among the finest he had encountered in his diving endeavors.

Returning to Mr. Triggs’ assertion regarding the Lonergans’ decision to pursue their own diving itinerary, it’s essential to underscore the commonplace nature of such autonomy among experienced divers. While certain media outlets may have levied criticism in the aftermath of the incident, the Lonergans’ choice aligns with standard practice within the diving community. Indeed, seasoned divers, including myself and those with whom I’ve had the privilege of diving, would likely opt for a similar course of action. However, it is noteworthy that the details of the Lonergans’ dive were not logged in the boat’s divermaster’s record at the conclusion of the expedition, a fact that garnered attention during legal proceedings.

Undated photo of Tom and Eileen Lonergan

Undated photo of Tom and Eileen Lonergan

Regarding the alleged head count conducted before the Outer Edge departed from St. Crispin Reef, conflicting testimonies emerged during the inquest. Mr. Triggs, for instance, recalled no such head count taking place. This discrepancy underscores the complexities surrounding the events leading up to the Lonergans’ disappearance. During the inquiry, Mr. Christopher Coxon, Acting Senior Inspector from the Department of Employment, Training, and Industrial Relations in Queensland, highlighted the formidable challenge the Lonergans would have faced had they attempted to swim to the nearest refuge, a pontoon anchored at Agincourt Reef. Contrary to earlier reports suggesting a shorter distance, Mr. Coxon’s assessment posited a daunting journey spanning six kilometers, compounded by the probable presence of strong currents. Such an endeavor, he emphasized, would have tested even the mettle of seasoned athletes like Australian Olympians Kieran Perkins and Grant Hackett.

Upon the Outer Edge’s return to Port Douglas, a disconcerting oversight emerged. Crew members noted the presence of abandoned belongings, including the Lonergans’ dry clothes and Mr. Lonergan’s eyewear, as well as a nearly empty dive bag. Additionally, two tanks and two weight belts were conspicuously absent. Despite these clues, the crew seemingly failed to pursue further inquiry, merely relocating the belongings without further investigation. Following the conclusion of their diving excursion, the Lonergans, along with potentially other divers, anticipated the arrival of the BTS bus to ferry them back to their lodgings. Norman Stigant, the bus driver entrusted with this task, diligently made his way to the BTS office between the hours of 5:30 and 6:00 pm. Upon his arrival, he promptly relayed disquieting news to the proprietor, Ms. Corinne Ann Scharenguivel— the Lonergans were nowhere to be found at the designated rendezvous point on the wharf. Stigant recounted his efforts to locate the American couple, scouring the nearby ice cream parlor, coffee shops, and hotel premises, only to be met with disappointment. Adding to the puzzle were two pairs of shoes belonging to the Lonergans, conspicuously abandoned at the wharf or dive shop in the wake of the boat’s return.

Ms. Scharenguivel, upon receiving this troubling update, took decisive action by contacting Outer Edge dive charters, presumably reaching out to the owner, Mr. Nairn. Though unable to recall the precise details of their conversation, she distinctly remembered receiving what she interpreted as tacit approval for the BTS driver to depart without the Lonergans—an exchange shrouded in ambiguity and implications. The following day, January 26, 1998, marked the discovery of two weight belts at St. Crispin Reef by a diver aboard the Outer Edge during its return to the same dive site with a fresh contingent of divers. This crucial finding was promptly reported to Mr. Nairn, sparking speculation that these belts likely belonged to the Lonergans, discarded in a desperate bid for survival upon realizing their abandonment by the vessel.

As the hours stretched into days, a sense of foreboding hung over the crew of the Outer Edge. It wasn’t until late on Tuesday, January 27, 1998—more than 48 agonizing hours after the vessel’s return to Port Douglas—that a startling discovery was made. Amidst the hustle and bustle of preparations for yet another excursion, the crew’s attention was drawn to a nondescript dive bag aboard the boat upon its return to the wharf. With nervousness, the bag was carefully opened, revealing a trove of personal effects—a wallet, papers, and a familiar shirt belonging to Mr. Lonergan. Shock and disbelief permeated the atmosphere as Mr. Nairn, in a moment captured on police tape, articulated his recognition of the items. It was a chilling realization—one that prompted immediate action, albeit belatedly, as authorities were summoned to the scene, 51 harrowing hours after the Lonergans were abandoned at sea.

The Search for the Lonergans

On January 28, 1998, a comprehensive search and rescue operation was launched, marshaling the resources of 17 aircraft, helicopters, and vessels, alongside the concerted efforts of law enforcement agencies, naval units, and civilian divers. Despite the collective determination and unwavering resolve of those involved, the relentless expanse of the ocean yielded no sign of the missing Lonergans, their absence casting a pall of uncertainty over the unfolding saga. Days turned into weeks, yet the quest for answers persisted, each passing moment fraught with anticipation and apprehension. Then, on February 5, 1998, a solitary artifact emerged from the rugged coastline near Indian Heads, situated a stark 10 kilometers north of Cooktown—a buoyancy compensator device, colloquially known as a BCD, belonging to Mr. Lonergan. Strikingly absent was the telltale presence of an accompanying tank, prompting speculation and deepening the mystery shrouding the couple’s fate.

Subsequent discoveries further embellished the somber narrative. Mrs. Lonergan’s distinctive green and grey wetsuit, bearing unmistakable tears in the buttocks region—presumed to be the handiwork of a relentless predator—was found washed ashore in close proximity to her husband’s BCD. The cruel tableau painted by these remnants evoked a visceral response, hinting at the savage forces that may have engulfed the couple in their final moments. As the investigation unfolded, additional clues emerged, each offering tantalizing fragments of insight into the mystery. A slate, bearing cryptic messages etched in a language understood only by the sea, surfaced on a distant shore, its origins traced back to the Lonergans through meticulous analysis and deduction.

The lonergan search

Despite a massive investigation, they were never seen again

Testimony presented at the subsequent Coroner’s Inquest painted a vivid portrait of systemic lapses and missed opportunities. Revelations regarding Outer Edge’s past practices—specifically, the absence of rigorous headcounts to ensure the safe return of all divers—cast a harsh light on the vessel’s operational protocols, raising troubling questions about accountability and oversight. Amidst the backdrop of uncertainty, the voice of seasoned diver Ben Cropp resonated with somber authority. Drawing upon nearly five decades of diving experience and a repertoire of over 10,000 logged dives, Cropp’s assertion reverberated with chilling clarity: “My personal feeling is a tiger shark took them in the first 24 to 48 hours.”

What Really Happened to the Lonergans?

The tragic story of the Lonergans’ disappearance unfolds with undeniable clarity, emphasizing a series of unfortunate oversights and the grim reality of their fate at St Crispin Reef. It is indisputable that Thomas and Eileen Lonergan were inadvertently left behind by the Outer Edge, which departed for Port Douglas without recognizing their absence. Compounding this oversight was the failure of the vessel’s owner and crew to notice the couple’s absence, despite several glaring indicators: the Lonergans’ belongings, including clothing and shoes, remained unclaimed, a discrepancy in the count of scuba tanks and weight belts was evidently overlooked, and the owner was uninformed of the Lonergans’ absence from the designated meeting point at the wharf, as pointed out by the bus owner. Speculatively, it appears the Lonergans may have embarked on a dive of longer duration than their companions, or found themselves adrift, unable to signal the boat due to the currents. The crew’s neglect to conduct a thorough headcount led to their premature departure. Upon surfacing, the Lonergans would have been confronted with the distressing sight of their boat either moving away or completely out of sight, prompting them to release their weight belts in an attempt to remain afloat.

Visibility of the nearby day platform, a potential refuge, was likely non-existent for the stranded divers, situated as it was several kilometers away and purported to be up-current, rendering any effort to reach it futile against the prevailing ocean currents. Their strategy would have naturally shifted towards drifting with the current, perhaps with an effort to swim westward concurrently. Holding onto their scuba tanks initially, in anticipation of the boat’s return, became untenable as time passed and night approached, leading to the decision to abandon the tanks, which would either float ashore if empty or sink if still filled. The expectation of a rescue operation commencing shortly after dark, once their absence was discovered, was sadly mistaken. As dehydration set in, exacerbated by the sun and heat, their condition likely deteriorated, potentially leading to delirium. The decision to discard their Buoyancy Control Devices (BCDs) could have been driven by a desperate bid to reach safety or a compromised state of mind, despite their wetsuits providing some level of buoyancy.

The Ocean Edge

The Ocean Edge, that took the couple to the diving spot

Ultimately, their demise was likely a result of dehydration, exhaustion, or the tragic possibility of falling asleep and drowning. The scenario of a shark encounter, particularly given the damage found on Mrs. Lonergan’s wetsuit, suggests a harrowing end involving shark predation, which may have led to their bodies being further lost to the sea. This reconstruction, though speculative, draws on insights from similar diving incidents, personal experiences of separation during dive trips, extensive diving knowledge, and information on maritime disasters, alongside evidence presented at the inquest. The conclusion reached by Coroner Mr. Nunan, SM, on 10 October 1998, that Thomas and Eileen Lonergan perished at sea due to drowning, exposure, or a shark attack between 26 January and 2 February 1998, underscores the tragic sequence of events. The coroner’s decision to charge Geoffrey Ian “Jack” Nairn with manslaughter, along with the recommendation for diving safety reforms, highlights the grave consequences of oversight and the critical need for stringent safety measures in diving expeditions.

The Disturbing Rumors about the Lonergans

The mystery surrounding the disappearance of Thomas and Eileen Lonergan has been the subject of extensive speculation and investigation, leading to a multitude of theories attempting to explain their tragic fate. One such theory proposed that the Lonergans might have intentionally orchestrated their own disappearance. This hypothesis, however, began to wane when it was revealed that the Lonergans’ financial assets remained untouched and their insurance policies were left unclaimed, casting doubt on the notion of a premeditated vanishing act. Further insight into the couple’s mindset prior to their disappearance was gleaned from personal writings recovered after their vanishing. Thomas Lonergan’s diary entries hinted at a desire for a “quick and peaceful” demise, while Eileen’s notes reflected a steadfast commitment to remain by her husband’s side, regardless of the circumstances they faced. These intimate revelations painted a complex picture of their state of mind, contributing to the nature of their disappearance.

In the wake of the mysterious vanishing of Mr. and Mrs. Lonergan, a swirl of speculation and rumors began to permeate the media landscape, suggesting a range of theories from the couple having orchestrated their own disappearance to the possibility of a deliberate suicide pact. These rumors found their roots in various purported motivations, including strains in the marriage and a sense of disillusionment following the conclusion of their service with the Peace Corps, coupled with the impending return to the United States. The genesis of these rumors seems to have been closely linked to individuals associated with the Outer Edge Dive company and broader circles within the Queensland dive industry. This appears to have been a calculated attempt to deflect culpability from the dive operator, amidst mounting scrutiny over the operational lapses that led to the Lonergans being left behind in the vast expanse of the Great Barrier Reef. Irrespective of the veracity of these speculations, the unassailable fact remains that Outer Edge failed to account for two of its divers, with a glaring delay of over 48 hours before the oversight was acknowledged and reported to the authorities.

A pivotal moment that swayed my conviction regarding the authenticity of the Lonergans’ disappearance was an article I came across that was published in the latter months of 1997. Published in the Good Weekend supplement of both the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, it detailed a journalist’s harrowing experience aboard a liveaboard dive vessel that unknowingly left behind two divers at a dive site. The vessel proceeded to travel for several hours into the night, with the crew dismissively rejecting claims of missing divers. It was only upon the journalist’s persistent intervention that the crew was persuaded to retrace their steps, culminating in the fortunate rescue of the divers. This incident underscored the potential for such an oversight to occur, not just on a liveaboard but equally so on a day boat operation. The legal proceedings against Jack Nairn, the figure at the center of this tragic saga, commenced on 8 November 1999. The culmination of the trial saw Mr. Nairn acquitted of all charges. He passed away on 31 December 2015, at the age of 59.

In a significant discovery made six months post-disappearance, a portion of the Lonergans’ diving equipment was found washed ashore on a beach near Port Douglas, approximately 75 miles (121 km) from the site of their last known location. The items, which included inflatable dive jackets emblazoned with their names, compressed air tanks, and one of Eileen’s fins, provided tangible evidence of their ordeal. Among these items, a weathered diver’s slate carried a desperate message, detailing their abandonment at Agincourt Reef and pleading for rescue— “Monday, Jan 26; 1998 08 am. To anyone who can help us: We have been abandoned on A[gin]court Reef by MV Outer Edge 25 Jan 1998 3pm. Please help to rescue us before we die. Help!!!” Eileen’s father, John Hains, posited that dehydration and disorientation were likely to have overwhelmed the couple, leading to their eventual demise, either by drowning or shark attack. This theory was echoed during the inquest into their disappearance, where experts surmised that the condition of the recovered gear indicated the couple had not fallen victim to an animal attack. Instead, it was speculated that delirium, brought on by severe dehydration, might have compelled them to remove their dive gear. Deprived of the buoyancy their equipment provided, it was concluded that they would have struggled to remain afloat, ultimately leading to drowning.

Open waters, the movie based on them

The poster for the movie Open Water, which was based on their disappearance

In early 2003, the film “Open Water” was unveiled at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, hosted by Robert Redford. While the narrative is set, as believed, in the Bahamas, its premise bears a stark resemblance to the harrowing ordeal of Thomas and Eileen Lonergan. The film, despite its modest budget, received widespread attention upon its release in August or September 2004, drawing a global audience far exceeding initial expectations. Regarding my impressions of “Open Water,” I view it as a profoundly unsettling psychological exploration that conjectures on the fate of two divers abandoned at sea. It’s crucial to note that the film does not claim to document the actual events that befell the Lonergans. The director has explicitly stated that while the inspiration was drawn from the Lonergans’ story, the intention was never to craft a factual recount of their disappearance. Another significant discovery occurred on 3 March 2006 when Jimmy Phelan, colloquially known as the “Thong Man” for his unique collection of thongs (flip-flops) found on Alva Beach, located approximately 80 kilometers east-south-east of Townsville, stumbled upon a fin with “Lonergan” faintly inscribed on it. This find, which was subsequently handed over to the police, is believed to belong to one of the Lonergans, marking a poignant moment in the ongoing saga of their disappearance. This discovery underscores the vast distances covered by ocean currents, bridging the tragic narrative of the Lonergans to the shores of Alva Beach, some 400 kilometers from St. Crispin’s Reef.

The couple has never been seen since, and their insurance money was never claimed. Despite the two of them not being content with their jobs, there isn’t many clues that confirm a staged disappearance. More than likely, the two were the victims of a shoddy tour management, and had to pay the ultimate price.

RIP Victims.

Next, read about the Disturbing Story of Mr. Cruel, and then, about the Chilling Ukrainian Murderers, the Dnepropetrovsk Maniacs!

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Written By

Abin Tom Sebastian, also known as Mr. Morbid in the community, is an avid fan of the paranormal and the dark history of the world. He believes that sharing these stories and histories are essential for the future generations. For god forbid, we have seen that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.

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