Michael McFadyen's Scuba Diving - Loss of Two Divers at Sea
As most people would be aware, in January 1998, two American divers disappeared from a dive boat when diving the Great Barrier Reef in Northern Queensland, Australia. The following is a reconstruction of the incident from media reports of the inquest conducted in Cairns, North Queensland, from 7 September 1998 by Coroner Noel Nunan.
On 25 January 1998, Thomas Lonergan, 34, and his wife Eileen, 28, departed their Cairns backpackers' hostel in a BTS Bus Company bus for the short trip to Port Douglas where they were booked on a dive charter boat, Outer Edge. The Lonergans were from Baton Rouge in Louisiana and had just completed a tour of duty as Peace Corp volunteers in the South Pacific on the island of Tuvalu. As part of a three month holiday before returning to the USA, Mr and Mrs Lonergan were doing some diving on the Great Barrier Reef.
The Lonergans arrived at Port Douglas and boarded the Outer Edge, a boat of about 12 metres and licensed to carry at least 26 passengers. On Sunday 25 January, the boat was under the command of the owner, Geoffrey Ian "Jack" Nairn. The Outer Edge headed out with 26 passengers to St Crispin Reef which was about 38 nautical miles north-east of Port Douglas. The Lonergans did two dives on the reef in this area and at about 3 pm, a third dive was started at a dive site called Fish City.
The Lonergans advised a diving instructor employed on the Outer Edge, Ms Katherine Traverso, that they would "go off and do their own thing". This was a quote from Mr Richard Triggs of Cairns, a diver on the trip, as reported in one of the newspaper articles of the inquest. Note that in this report, Mr Triggs was quoted as saying that Outer Edge was the best operator he had seen. When I first wrote this article in about 1998, I commented that this was not really much of a recommendation as he had only done 40 dives.
In September 2008, Mr Triggs contacted me and stated that what I have written is not accurate. He told me, "I was extremely critical of the safety procedures of Outer Edge, [and have] have felt my wife and my own safety were put in jeopardy that day. I spoke at length about this both to police and during the inquest. I am not sure where the comment about "best operator" has come from as it obviously was a long time ago."
It would appear that his comments were incorrectly reported by newspapers covering the inquest.
Anyway, back to the comment by Mr Triggs that the Lonergans told Ms Traverso that they would "go off and do their own thing". This action by the Lonergans is nothing unusual as most experienced divers would know, but of about which some media made adverse comments soon after the incident. Most experienced divers would take the same option as Mr and Mr Lonergan!! I would and every diver I dive with would probably also do the same.
The Lonergans' dive details were not entered into the boat's divermaster's log book at the end of the dive. See comments at trial.
It is alleged that a head count was conducted and 26 passengers counted. As far as can be ascertained, the Outer Edge then departed St Crispin Reef without waiting for the Lonergans to return to the boat. Mr Triggs told the Inquest that as far as he recalls, there was no head count done when the Outer Edge left the dive site.
At the inquest, Mr Christopher Coxon, Acting Senior Inspector, Department of Employment, Training and Industrial Relations, Queensland, reported that the Lonergans would have had to swim six kilometres to the nearest refuge, a pontoon moored at Agincourt Reef. This would have been across a probable strong current (this is contrary to comments made in the media shortly after the Lonergans disappeared that the distance to the pontoon was a lot less). This is an impossible thing to do. Even Australian 1500 metre Olympian Gold Medal winners Kieran Perkins and Grant Hackett would probably not be able to do it.
The Outer Edge then returned to Port Douglas. When the boat docked, the crew apparently noticed that there was at least one bag left behind by the passengers but they do not appear to have investigated this further and simply moved the bag to another location on the boat. In fact there were two bags. One was a plastic bag containing the Lonergans' dry clothes and Mr Lonergan's glasses. In addition, there was a nearly empty dive bag. As well, the boat was missing two tanks and two weight belts!
Soon after, the bus from BTS arrived to take the Lonergans (and maybe some other divers) back to their accommodation. The driver, Norman Stigant, went to the BTS office at about 5.30 to 6.00 pm and reported to the owner of BTS, Ms Corinne Ann Scharenguivel that the Lonergans were not waiting for him when he arrived at the wharf. He reported that he looked for the Americans in the ice cream parlour, the coffee shops, the hotel as well as other areas but he could not find them. There were also two pairs of shoes belonging to the Lonergans that were not collected from the wharf (or dive shop) when the boat returned.
Ms Scharenguivel reported that she then phoned Outer Edge dive charters and spoke to a person that she believed was the owner, Mr Nairn. Ms Scharenguivel reported that she could not remember the exact content of the conversation but that "All I can say is the response I got back was it was OK for our driver to leave [without them]".
On Monday 26 January 1998, two weight belts were discovered at St Crispin Reef by a diver on the Outer Edge when it returned to the same dive site with different divers. This was reported to Mr Nairn. It is possible/probable that these were the Lonergans' belts dropped once they discovered the boat had left them behind.
Late on Tuesday 27 January 1998, more than 48 hours after the Outer Edge returned to Port Douglas, the crew of the boat noticed a dive bag on the boat on its return to the wharf.
The bag was opened. "I looked in the bag and thought, Jesus Christ, it's got a wallet and papers in it" Mr Nairn was tape recorded by Police as saying. He apparently said that he recognised a shirt in the bag as being one worn by Mr Lonergan on the day he dived. It would appear that Mr Nairn then called the Police - 51 hours after the Lonergans were left at the reef.
On 28 January 1998 a search by 17 aircraft, helicopters and boats and by Police, Navy and civilian divers began. No trace of the Lonergans was found despite the search continuing for many days.
On 5 February 1998, Mr Lonergan's BCD (bouyany compansator device - a "vest" used to provide buoyancy at depth) was found near Indian Heads, 10 kilometres north of Cooktown, which is about 105 km north of Port Douglas. There was no tank attached.
Some time later Mrs Lonergan's green and grey wetsuit was found washed ashore also near Indian Heads. It had tears in the buttocks region, presumed to have been caused by a shark. I believe that Mrs Lonergan's BCD also ended up in the same area. Even later, a slate was found on a beach and this was apparently confirmed as being the Lonergans from things written on it.
Other evidence given at the Coroner's Inquest included:
So what happened?
This is, of course, pure guesswork. But based on other similar diving accidents, personal experience of being separated for an extended period from my dive boat, the knowledge acquired from well over 3,000 dives, shipwreck information (re what happens to bodies after a sinking) and the evidence given at the inquest, I believe it is a pretty accurate record of the event.
On Friday 10 October 1998, the Coroner Mr Nunan, SM, found that Thomas and Eileen Lonergan died at sea from either drowning, exposure or shark attack some time between 8 am on 26 January 1998 and 2 February 1998. He committed Geoffrey Ian "Jack" Nairn to stand trial for manslaughter over the deaths of Thomas and Eileen Lonergan. Mr Nunan also recommended that certain dive safety reforms be introduced.
Soon after the disappearance of Mr and Mrs Lonergan, rumours began to circulate (and be published in the media) that they had either faked their disappearance or had committed suicide. There were many reasons put up why these were true, a fading marriage, dissatisfaction with having to return to the United States after completing their Peace Corp work.
It is almost certain that these rumours were started by people associated with the Outer Edge Dive company or the Queensland dive industry in an effort to shift blame away from the operator. However, even if they are true (and I for one never even thought it possible), the fact is that the Outer Edge still left two divers out on the Great Barrier Reef and did not notice this or report it to the Police for more than two full days.
One of the things that convinced me that the disappearance was above board was the following story. In about October, November or December of 1997, there was an article in the Good Weekend supplement to the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age in which a journalist wrote about the experience of being on a liveaboard which left two divers at a site and motored for hours through the night with the crew refusing to believe that divers were missing. It was not until the journalist insisted that a search be conducted of the boat that they turned around and went back. Luckily, the two divers were found alive. If this could happen on a liveaboard, why not on a day boat?
The trial of Jack Nairn began on 8 November 1999. Unfortunately I went overseas on 9 November 1999 and only saw some newspaper items on the trial. However, the final outcome was that Mr Nairn was found not guilty. He died on 31 December 2015 at the age of 59.
In early 2004 a movie called Open Water was shown at Robert Redford's Sundance Film Festival. This appears to be based on what happened to Thomas and Eileen Lonergan, although it is set in, I think, the Bahamas. In about June 2004 I was contacted by a New York documentary maker who advised me that he planned to make a documentary on the Lonergans, starting in late 2004. He promised to make contact when he came to Australia. The movie was released to a much wider audience than possibly first envisaged (it was made on a low budget I understand) and opened in August or September 2004 around the World. Since mid-July 2004, I have been contacted by a number of journalists (including American, British and Australian) about this web site article seeking my thoughts on what happened. This is not a matter that is likely to be forgotten easily by the press.
What did I think of the movie? I think it was a scary psychological movie that accurately reflects what MIGHT happen to two divers left behind. It does not represent nor does it pretend to represent what happened to the Lonergans. The director has stated that the idea came from reading about the Lonergans but he never intended it to be a "documentary" on what happened to them.
I think that what happens in the movie is one of a number of likely outcomes of two divers left behind and may even represent what happened in whole or part to the Lonergans. As a person who has spent some time "lost at sea" after diving (read my account), what is shown is similar to what happened to me and my friends, at least in the early stages of the movie. I recommend it to all divers and even to non-divers.
Since August 2004, over 100,000 people have accessed this page to read more about the Lonergans. Hundreds have e-mailed me on this matter. One of these was Richard Triggs who was on the boat when the Lonergans went missing. He told me in September 2008 that "I think your conclusions are very valid and in line with my own thoughts at the time".
On 3 March 2006, Jimmy Phelan, known locally as the "Thong Man", was walking along Alva Beach at Cape Bowling Green. This is about 80 kilometres east-south-east of Townsville which is 280 kilometres south-east of Cairns. Mr Phelan's nickname comes from the fact that over the years he has found thousands of thongs (flip-flops) on the beach and nailed them to his fence. It would appear that lots of flotsam and jetsam ends up on this beach due to the current patterns (there is another place on Cape York on the northern tip of Queensland that also attracts thousands of thongs). Anyway, Mr Phelan found a fin (flipper for non-divers). This fin had the name "Lonergan" written on it very faintly. He has given this fin to the Police.
I have spoken to a person who saw the fin, Mark Kelly, and I am convinced that this is probably the fin of one of the Lonergans. It would appear that it took 8 years to travel the approximately 400 kilometres from St Crispin's Reef to Alva Beach.