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Episode 13: Australia – The Disappearance of Tom and Eileen Lonergan

  • 1:40:53
  • March 21, 2022
  • Explicit Content

This week, Brianna tells Steph about the disappearance of Tom and Eileen Lonergan, two American tourists who were left at sea during a scuba diving trip off the coast of Queensland, Australia.

The Disappearance of Tom and Eileen Lonergan

Welcome back to the dark side. I’m your host Brianna, Steph is joining us this week, and this is Dark Adaptation.

Welcome to episode 13!

Elnaz Hajtamiri is still missing… two weeks ago in our 11th episode we covered her case and delivered all the information currently available, so make sure you listen to that episode to familiarize yourself with her story and help bring her home.

This week we are talking about a disappearance.

Introduction

Tom and Eileen Lonergan were a married couple from America. They had waited for the perfect day to go scuba diving in the Coral Sea at St. Crispin’s Reef, a popular dive site on the Great Barrier Reef, 25 miles off the northeast coast of Queensland, Australia. January 25, 1998, arrived, and they headed out with the rest of the group on the scuba boat the Outer Edge for their diving trip.

Miles from shore, they surfaced after spending nearly an hour underwater to find the Outer Edge was nowhere in sight. They called for help, but there was no response. Floating in the middle of the ocean with nothing to hold on to but each other, they hoped that someone on board the Outer Edge would realize their mistake before it was too late, but the boat never returned for them. They were abandoned at sea with nothing and no one in sight.

It took 2 days before anyone realized they were missing, and a search was immediately launched. The search efforts yielded some of their personal belongings and gear, but Tom and Eileen were never seen again.

Background

Thomas Joseph Lonergan was born on December 28, 1964, and Eileen Cassidy Lonergan was born on March 3, 1969. They were described as “young, idealistic and in love” and “devout Catholics with good prospects”.

Tom and Eileen lived in Baton Rouge, Louisiana where they both attended and graduated from Louisiana State University. They were married in Jefferson, Texas on June 24, 1988, when Tom was 23 and Eileen was 19. Eileen had taken up scuba diving and Tom developed an interest in it as well, so it turned into their shared hobby. They were described as “diving veterans”.

In the early 1990s, they joined the US Peace Corps and taught children in Tuvalu, a small south pacific island (one of 9 islands), and Sigatoka Methodist School in Fiji.

Mike Jones, a fellow member of the Peace Corps and Tom and Eileen’s friend from when they all worked in Fiji together, said:

“They were among those I considered to be my best friends in Peace Corps Fiji… They were just like the rest of us Peace Corps Volunteers. They went through the challenges of Peace Corps life and were open and honest about their experiences. They were, like me, healthily cynical and had a great sense of humor. Tom and Eileen were two of the most wonderful, vivacious, adventurous, and generous people you could ever hope to meet. They were magnificent friends, and I miss them every day… I know that they felt as I did, that, at the end of their Peace Corps service, they had accomplished something great. They devoted themselves to helping others, not for any sense of glory or martyr-like fame, but just to be of help to their fellow humans.”

By January 1998, Tom and Eileen had plans to make their way to Hawaii and settle down, but they wanted to travel a bit more first and their next stop was Australia.

Events & Disappearance

On January 25, 1998, as part of a 3-month holiday before returning to America, they were determined to dive the world’s largest coral reef system, the Great Barrier Reef. They waited 10 days until the weather conditions were perfect for their dive. Tom and Eileen departed their Cairns hostel in a bus from BTS Bus Company (transfer and tour company bus) for the trip to Port Douglas where they were booked on a dive charter boat, the Outer Edge. For $160 ($296.76 today), the crew would take divers for 3 dives on the ribbon reefs, a stack of broad shoals that run along the Great Barrier Reef.

They arrived at Port Douglas, an upmarket diving and sailing town (relatively expensive and designed to appeal to affluent consumers), and boarded the Outer Edge, a 12-metre boat that was licensed to carry at least 26 passengers and was under the command of Jack Nairn. The Outer Edge headed out with 26 passengers and traveled 58.2 km northeast to St. Crispin Reef. Tom and Eileen 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. For this third dive, Tom and Eileen advised the diving instructor, Katherine Traverso, that they would “go off and do their own thing”. This isn’t out of the ordinary because they were experienced divers, and most experienced divers would opt to go off on their own. They headed off together and were last seen swimming away calmly.

Investigations and Evidence

Tom and Eileen’s dive details, along with their choice to dive alone, weren’t entered into the boat’s divemaster’s logbook at the end of the dive. This is important to the next part of the story, but this next part is reported differently.

So, with the 3 dives complete, all the divers boarded the Outer Edge to head back to Port Douglas. Here’s where we get different reporting:

  1. It’s alleged that a headcount was conducted, all 26 passengers were accounted for, and the Outer Edge departed St. Crispin Reef without Tom and Eileen.
  2. Another diver on the trip, Richard Triggs, later told the inquest that as far as he recalls, there was no headcount done when the Outer Edge left the dive site. (inquest: a judicial inquiry to ascertain the facts relating to an incident).
  3. The crew did a headcount and came up with only 24 of their 26 clients. Someone said 2 divers had jumped back into the water, the crew didn’t see anyone in the water, they adjusted the count to 26 assuming they miscounted and headed back to Port Douglas.

One thing is consistent and apparent – the boat left without Tom and Eileen.

It’s reported by Christopher Coxon, Acting Senior Inspector of the Department of Employment, Training and Industrial Relations in Queensland, that the Outer Edge had previously left dive sites without carrying out a headcount to ensure that all divers were back on board the boat.

When the boat docked, the crew noticed there was a bag and 2 pairs of shoes left behind by the passengers, but they didn’t investigate it further, and instead put the bag and shoes into the lost and found. The boat was also missing two tanks and two weight belts.

The bus from BTS Bus Company arrived to take people back to the hostel in Cairns. The bus driver, Norman Stigant, went to the BTS office between 5:30 and 6 pm and reported to the owner, Corinne, that Tom and Eileen weren’t waiting for him when he arrived at the wharf in Port Douglas. He reported that he looked for them – he checked the ice cream parlour, the coffee shops, the hotel, anywhere in the area that he could think of, but he didn’t find them.

Corinne reported that she then phoned Outer Edge dive charters and spoke to a person she believed was the owner, Tom Colrain. She later reported she couldn’t remember exactly what they talk about, but clarified, “All I can say is the response I got back was ‘it was OK for our driver to leave without them’.

On January 27, 2 days after the Outer Edge returned to Port Douglas without Tom and Eileen, the crew of the boat decided to open the bag they had put in the lost and found. Inside, they found Tom’s wallet, the couple’s clothes and passports, and Tom’s glasses. Concerned, Jack Nairn called the owner of the Hostel in Cairns where Tom and Eileen had been staying, to see if they had returned – they hadn’t.

It was at the point Jack called the police, 51 hours after Tom and Eileen were left at sea.

On January 28, the search for Tom and Eileen began with the aid of the police, the Navy, and civilian divers. A total of 17 aircraft, 2 helicopters, and countless boats were involved in the search efforts, searching a 3,200 square-nautical-mile area of ocean and coastline. After more than 2 days in the ocean, the couple could have drowned or been eaten by sharks. Sadly, no trace of Tom and Eileen was found, and after 3 days, this search was called off. The police determined the currents could have carried them far away from the original dive area, plus there was a bunch of debris on the shore and in the water from recent cyclones which made spotting anything of value very difficult.

Despite this extensive search being called off, clues would be discovered over the next few days that offered glimpses into the lives of Tom and Eileen as they floated alone at sea.

In early February, a women’s wetsuit matching Eileen’s size washed ashore in north Queensland. Upon examination of barnacle growth on the wetsuit, it was determined it had likely been submerged in the ocean since January. There were tears on the butt and armpit area, which lead a lot of people to believe they were attacked by sharks, but examiners of the suit presume the tears were actually a result of it coming in contact with coral.

On February 5, Tom’s buoyancy compensator device was found north of Cooktown, which is nearly 200 km north of Port Douglas. There was no tank attached to the vest.

The search was officially called off on February 14.

In June, 6 months other their disappearance, more of the couple’s diving gear was found washed ashore approximately 121 km from where they were lost. Among these items were inflatable dive jackets marked with the Tom and Eileen’s names, one of Eileen’s fins, and their compressed air tanks which were still buoyed by the remnants of air.

100 miles from where they were lost, a fisherman found a weathered diver’s slate (a device used for communicating underwater). Written on it was a message which permanently recorded Tom and Eileen’s thoughts as they waded in the water after surviving the night: “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!!!”

Trial

Coroner Noel Nunan, ended the inquest into the disappearance of Tom and Eileen, saying they had drowned or died of exposure after being left at St. Crispin Reef. He said they likely died sometime between 8 am on January 26 and February 2.

On Friday, October 10, 1998, Noel Nunan formally charged skipper Jack Nairn with manslaughter for the unlawful killing of Tom and Eileen (Jack was commanding the boat that took the divers to the reef). In court, Noel Nunan 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.”

The trial began on November 8, 1999.

Prosecution 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 suits. Without the buoyancy provided by their gear, they testified the couple would have been unable to tread water for long and would have drowned.

Graham Houston, the counsel for the operators of the Outer Edge shocked everyone when he brought up the idea that Tom and Eileen’s death was actually the result of double suicide, Tom murdered Eileen before ending his own life, or they had faked their own deaths and started a new life.

At first, it seemed outlandish, but then “melancholy passages” from Tom and Eileen’s diaries were raised as evidence and read in court. The diaries were found in the hostel they had been staying at and had been written shortly before they disappeared. Allegedly, the diaries hinted at personal troubles and some entries could be interpreted as depressing.

According to Eileen’s parents and family members, the diary entries were taken out of context and both sides of the family were really upset that Tom and Eileen’s personal thoughts and feelings were plastered everywhere for people to see and analyze. The family, the coroner Noel Nunan, and the Port Douglas police claim that only pages that would validate the theories brought forward by the defense were leaked to the press, whereas the majority of the diaries remain unread except by those close to the case. Because the entries were leaked to the press, sightings of Tom and Eileen began pouring in from all over Australia.

At the end of the trial, Jack Nairn was found not guilty.

Eileen’s father, John Hains, who traveled to Cairns for the hearing, said:

“The defense attorney used these diaries to absolutely slander, to absolutely destroy these two people’s reputations… I was disappointed in the verdict. I felt like the jury didn’t believe that they were dead, and to me, that was the essence of the trial, was to prove that they had died.”

The skipper’s dive company, Outer Edge, also faced separate charges under workplace health and safety laws. The company pled guilty to negligence, they were fined $27,000, and then ultimately went out of business.

A lot of people were disappointed with the verdict, not just the family. People felt a fine of $27,000 on the company and not sentencing those responsible was a huge mistake and wasn’t justice at all. A lot of people also felt the court and the jury thought tourism money was more important than holding Jack and Outer Edge responsible for their negligence.

Noel Nunan recommended that certain dive safety reforms be introduced, including headcount confirmations, a lookout who remained on the boat during dives, and new identification measures. And it worked. Today the requirement is that captains and divemasters independently confirm each headcount. All passengers need to be back on the boat, the doors closed, and everyone is in their seats. The crew watches the passengers to ensure nobody is leaving their seat and all crew members separately conduct a headcount and then compare their numbers with one another. It’s very thorough, especially in comparison to procedures in 1998.

Theories

  1. Suicide or murder-suicide
  2. Attacked and eaten by tiger sharks
  3. Staged disappearance/faked death
  4. Dehydrated & Drowned

Closing

Amazingly, Eileen’s father holds no grudge against the crew and passengers of the Outer Edge. He said:

“I don’t have any hard feelings against anybody, because it was an accident”. His only disappointment is that among all the equipment washed up on the shores of north Queensland, there was never a trace of his daughter’s body. “It leaves a big hole in you to lose your kid, that’s part of your life. I wish they had found them, so we had something. I suppose we have the Great Barrier Reef. They’re part of that.”

Mike Jones, the friend of Tom and Eileen that I quoted at the beginning, said:

“In the ridiculousness which has followed, no one has spoken of the lives they lived, the people whose lives they changed forever. Tom and Eileen should be honored and praised for the life they lived, not coldly depicted for their tragic end. The true tragedy is what has happened since they were abandoned. To the parents, family, and friends of Tom and Eileen, I offer my deepest sympathies. Though they died far too early, they died as heroes. They answered the call of service, and they helped untold numbers of people.”

And that is the story of the disappearance of Tom and Eileen Lonergan.

Sign Off

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Thank you everyone for your kind words, support, and encouragement.

Thanks for joining us, Steph!

We’ll catch you on the dark side.

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