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Lost At Sea: The Disappearance Of Tom and Eileen Lonergan, Left In The Ocean Whilst Diving

In January of 1998 and whilst on a diving expedition to St. Crispin’s Reef, a popular dive site in the Great Barrier Reef, American couple Tom and Eileen Lonergan were accidentally left at sea. How exactly they met their demise remains a mystery to this day, but their remains have never been found.

The couple were both from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Tom Lonergan was 33 and Eileen was 28. Experienced divers, the couple was described as “young, idealistic and in love with each other.”

At the time of the dive, Tom and Eileen were on their way home from Fiji where they had both been serving in the Peace Corps for the last 12 months. They stopped in Queensland, Australia on the way for the chance to dive the world’s largest coral reef system.

The couple booked their trip through the diving company Outer Edge, in total 26 passengers boarded the scuba boat. Geoffrey Nairn, the boat’s skipper, led the way as they set out to their destination 25 miles off the coast of Queensland.

After arriving, the passengers put on their diving gear and jumped into the Coral Sea. That is the last clear thing that can be said about Tom and Eileen Lonergan. The session would've lasted about 40 minutes, but when the couple broke the surface they were met with clear blue sky, clear blue water all the way to the horizon, and nothing else. No boat in front, no boat behind. Just two disoriented divers who realised their crew had left them.

Leaving divers behind isn’t necessarily a dead-cert way to die, but in the case of this couple, the amount of time it took for anyone to realise that Tom and Eileen weren’t on the returning boat was too long.

Two full days went by before anyone realised that the Lonergans were missing. It was only when the skipper, Nairn found a bag aboard containing their personal belongings, wallets, and passports that the alarm was raised.

A massive search began. Both air and sea rescue teams spent three days looking for the missing couple. Everyone from the Navy to civilian vessels took part in the search.

Rescue members found some of the Lonergan’s diving gear washed up ashore. This included a dive slate, an accessory used for making notes underwater. The slate read:

“To anyone who can help us: We have been abandoned on Agin court reef Reef 25 Jan 1998 03pm. Please help us come to rescue us before we die. Help!!!”

But Tom and Eileen Lonergan’s bodies were never found.

Some Of The Theories About The Lonergans’ Disappearance

Like most unsolved disappearances, chilling theories arose in the aftermath. Was it a matter of negligence on the part of the company and captain? Or was there something more sinister lurking beneath the surface of the seemingly happy couple?

There was some speculation that they staged it or that perhaps it was a suicide or even a murder-suicide. Tom and Eileen’s diaries had some problematic entries that added fuel to the fire.

On January 9, 1998, just two weeks before their diving trip, Mrs Lonergan wrote a particularly alarming entry: "(Tom) hopes to die a quick and painly (sic) 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."

She also wrote of how their relationship had entered a new and unhealthy phase: "Our lives are so entwined now and we are hardly two individuals. I am still Eileen, but I am mostly Eileen and Tom. He is mostly Tom and Eileen. Where we are now goes beyond dependence, beyond love."

The Age from Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. Saturday, 28 February 1998

Since there is no disputing that the crew of the Outer Edge did miscalculate the number of divers back on board before setting off, any suicidal plans of the Lonergans would have had to rely on an unforeseen and genuine mistake. To most minds, such a coincidence would seem extremely unlikely.

The mystery deepened, however when items of the Lonergans' diving gear were found, apparently washed up on a beach more than 100 kilometres north west of where the couple had been seen last. There were no bite marks on any of it.

Also found on a beach was a slate used for writing messages to other divers. On one side was inconsequential scribble dealing with technical diving matters that was positively identified as Mr Lonergan's handwriting. On the other side was a simple message. Dated 8am on January 26, the day after they were last seen, it read: "Can anyone help, we have been abandoned by Outer Edge at Agincourt Reef. Please help us before we die." The writing could not, however, be definitively identified as belonging to the couple.

Questions were also raised over why the couple had apparently ignored a large lifebuoy nearby that was easily visible from the water. Although Mr Lonergan had poor eyesight, his wife had no such problem.

The presence of an "unidentified" game-fishing boat observed roaring away from the dive site on the afternoon of the disappearance, and more than 20 "sightings" of the Lonergans in the months after the incident, have fuelled theories that the couple faked their own deaths. They were apparently spotted browsing in a bookshop in Port Douglas, northern Queensland, and on another occasion they were allegedly seen at a service station in Darwin.

Their parents disputed this suspicion and said the entries were taken out of context. The general consensus was that the couple was left dehydrated and disoriented, leading to either drowning or being eaten by sharks.

In a proceeding court case, coroner Noel Nunan charged Nairn with unlawful killing. Nunan said that the “skipper should be vigilant for the safety of passengers and ensure safety measures are carried out.” He added, “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. But the company was fined after it pled guilty to negligence, which caused them to go out of business. Tom And Eileen Lonergan’s case also prompted stricter government regulations in regards to safety, including headcount confirmations and new identification measures.


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