It was over two decades ago that Tom and Eileen Lonergan went missing after diving off a tour boat off the coast of Queensland, Australia.
They were left abandoned in shark-infested waters when the boat left without them, and their terrifying experience inspired the hit film Open Water.
But unlike in the movie, it’s not known whether the Lonergan’s were eaten by sharks. In fact 23 years on from the day they disappeared, it’s still not known how or if they really died.
The American couple arrived at Port Douglas in northern Australia in January 1998 looking for adventure, reports the Daily Star.
After a two-year tour of duty with the US Peace Corps in Tuvalu and Fiji, the Lonergans, who had been married for ten years, decided they would visit the must-see Great Barrier Reef.
The couple had met and got married while at university in Louisiana, and Eileen was already passionate about scuba diving, a hobby which she passed on to Tom.
But nothing seemed wrong when the couple went on their Great Barrier Reef adventure in January 1998.
They joined fellow divers on board the Outer Edge boat in the waters of the ocean and were last spotted 12m under the sea, exploring the world-famous ocean ecosystem, which had always been their dream.
But after just under an hour beneath the surface, the Lonergans reemerged to get back on the boat, only to discover it had left without them.
The Outer Edge crew and their fellow divers had abandoned them in the middle of the ocean, leaving them to drown or be eaten by tiger sharks.
The huge deadly sharks are often spotted off the Queensland coast, measuring 5m in length, and the species most likely to attack humans.
The couple must have swum and searched in a panic, but the Outer Edge was nowhere to be seen — it had returned to Port Douglas without them.
And shockingly, it wasn’t until two days later that anyone realised the Lonergans had been left behind, when skipper and Outer Edge owner Jack Nairn found the couple’s dive bag with their wallet and papers.
A search by the police and Australian navy for the couple began immediately, but they were never found.
As the months passed, traces of the Lonergans’ fate started to appear.
Six months on a wetsuit of Eileen’s size – with no blood on it – was discovered along with inflatable dive jackets with Tom and Eileen’s names on, Eileen’s fins and their compressed air tanks, washed up on a Port Douglas beach approximately 75 miles (121 km) from where they were lost.
Also recovered was a diver’s slate – 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 1998 3pm. Please help to rescue us before we die. Help!!!”
The state of the evidence suggested a shark attack was not likely – unlike the bloody climax of Open Water where the male character is eaten by sharks and the female character eventually submerges herself into a pool of them, giving in to her fate.
Upon examination of barnacle growth on the wetsuit, it was determined it had likely been submerged in the ocean since January. It also had tears along buttock and armpit area, presumed by examiners to have been caused by coral.
By the time the evidence was found however, hopes for the Lonergans’ recovery were fading.
The growing international incident between Australia and America turned ugly after the couple’s disappearance, as lawyers for Outer Edge suggested they had gone missing on purpose, using entries leaked from Eileen’s diary just two weeks before the trip to support their argument.
The 28-year-old had written that her husband had a ‘death wish’ saying: “He hopes to die a quick and 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.”
Suicide or even murder-suicide at the hands of Tom became a possibility, but this was dismissed by the Lonergans’ families as outlandish and slanderous.
Ultimately the Outer Edge was held accountable, and Nairn pleaded guilty to negligence.
Coroner Noel Nunan in his closing remarks told the inquiry into the disappearance that skipper Nairn should bear the brunt of responsibility.
He said: “The skipper should be vigilant for the safety of passengers and ensure safety measures are carried out.
“When you combine the number of mistakes and the severity of the mistakes, I am satisfied a reasonable jury would find Mr Nairn guilty of manslaughter on criminal evidence.”
Nairn was found not guilty by the jury, but his Outer Edge Boat Company did go out of business.
During the inquest on the deaths, experts speculated that, based on the state of the gear recovered, the couple had most likely succumbed to delirium resulting from dehydration, which caused them to voluntarily remove their diving outfits and drown.
But no bodies or remains have ever been found.
The couple’s disappearance resulted in a crisis of confidence in north Queensland’s dive industry, resulting in tighter mandatory safety regulations for diving boats in Australia, which now means diving boat skippers must complete headcounts of all divers onboard.
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