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The Tragic Disappearance of Tom and Eileen Lonergan

As Tom and Eileen Lonergan thumbed through holiday guides and maps, their fingers delicately met on the same destination.

A few days later, the pair had booked a trip to arguably one of the best diving spots in the world, The Great Barrier Reef, which sits off the coast of Queensland, Australia.

For the couple, this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and they were prepared to make the most of it.

Just hours into what should have been the most idyllic excursion of their life, things took a very dark turn. The true events that followed would inspire the 2003 horror film Open Water.

An undated image of Tom and Eileen Lonergan.

The Beginning 

The story of Eileen and Tom Lonergan begins in the late 1980s at Louisiana State University. The two bright-eyed and bushy-tailed students crossed paths one afternoon, and from that moment forward, they were inseparable.

Soon after their chance encounter on June 24th 1988, Eileen Cassidy Hains became Eileen Lonergan in Jefferson, Texas.

The wedding was a bright and happy affair, with friends and family having no doubts the couple would be able to stand the test of time.

The Adventures Begin

Soon into their relationship, Eileen showed Tom that she had an adventurous side. Eileen loved scuba diving, and after some coaxing, Tom fell in love with the activity, too.

The pair felt free as they swam around in crystal blue waters, being lucky enough to take in the flora and fauna before them.

In 1996, Eileen and Tom decided they wanted another adventure, but wanted to ensure that this adventure would help to make the world a better place. The pair were described as selfless and caring, almost to a fault.

In 1996, the pair began their two-year tour with the US Peace Corps in the Polynesian islands of Tuvalu and Fiji. Tuvalu is a country many may not have heard of, with Fiji being more well-known due to its proximity to Australia and New Zealand.

For two years, Tom and Eileen put the needs of others before themselves, a truly selfless act. As New Year 1998 came ever closer, the couple decided to return home, but not without doing something for themselves first.

The Last Adventure

1998 marked their 10th wedding anniversary, and what better way to celebrate, albeit a few months early, than with a diving trip to one of the best places on Earth, the Great Barrier Reef.

As 1998 rang in, they said goodbye to their newfound friends and boarded a plane bound for Australia. The pair called their respective families to tell them of their detour and to glow about how excited they were to finally see the great reef up close.

Little did anyone know that this would be Tom and Eileen’s last contact with the outside world.

Tom and Eileen photographed together.

January 25th 1998, was the big day. Tom and Eileen awoke bright and early to make the most of their day before heading to the marina to catch their boat.

Tom, Eileen and 24 other passengers had booked with the tour/diving company ‘Outer Edge’, which had run tours across the QLD’s Coast for many years.

After sailing for a while and making it around 25 miles from shore, the skipper, Geoffrey or Jack Nairn (depending on the source), slowly brought the vessel to a stop.

For the next few, the crew of the Outer Edge talked the 26 passengers through a last-minute safety briefing. Once the talk was over, everyone jumped overboard and began the plunge.

Tom and Eileen quickly got ahead of the group, given their experienced nature. The two exchanged sign language and signals to each other to express their glee, pointing out fish and all sorts of wildlife.

Minutes quickly rolled by, and the two spent every available minute to soak in their surroundings.

When the pair finally surfaced, they were met with an eerie silence and nothing but a cerulean blue sea around them. The Outer Edge boat that had brought them 25 miles out from shore was now gone.

Tom and Eileen swam around on the surface, hoping to find the boat and the other passengers nearby, but as the minutes ticked by, they slowly began to realise the gravity of their situation. They were stranded, and nobody was coming to save them.

Back on the Outer Edge boat, the skipper and crew took 24 passengers back to the safety of dry land. For reasons that remain unknown, a headcount was not conducted prior to leaving the Great Barrier Reef.

Had a headcount been conducted, this story may have ended very differently. On January 26th 1998, the Outer Edge returned to the Great Barrier Reef with more excitable passengers.

Disturbingly, during this excursion, other divers found lone dive weights at the bottom of the ocean.

In an eerie twist, these weights would later be confirmed as belonging to Tom and Eileen. According to passengers on the January 26th trip, the skipper and crew told them they were ‘a bonus find’ as if the oceans had blessed them with extra equipment.

The world sat silent, blissfully unaware of the nightmare that was unfolding just miles out from one of the world’s best beaches.

The Realization

On January 27th, the Outer Edge and its skipper were amping up for another tour day. That is when an eagle-eyed crew member noticed something. Two packs of gear and two bags with the name tags ‘Lonergan’ sat on the boat, untouched.

Casting their minds back, the crew checked their records, and they had, in fact, taken Tom and Eileen Lonergan out on January 25th, so why were their personal items still on the boat?

Passport photos of Tom and Eileen. Image by QLD police.

The crew tried to call the couple, but it was to no avail. It was at this moment the crew of the Outer Edge realised they had made a fatal mistake.

They had unknowingly been two passengers light that January morning. Tom and Eileen Lonergan had been stranded at sea for two days without food, water or shelter.

The probability of them surviving the Australian heat and beaming sunshine without water was already low, but another factor was also at play.

Sharks and other dangerous creatures often circled the beaches of Queensland. After several hours, the two would have succumbed to exhaustion, making them easy prey for a passing predator.

Upon realising their mistake, the crew of the Outer Edge immediately notified the Coast Guard and local authorities. Within the hour, boats and helicopters were 25 miles out to sea, desperately scouring the waters for any sign of the couple.

Divers were also dispatched to the area, and the Australian Press quickly picked up on the story. The tour company that facilitated the trip soon came under fire but also fired back.

They told the press that Tom and Eileen had insisted on going off on the last dive themselves, telling tour guides they were ‘experienced divers’.

According to reports, this request was not recorded in the diving log for January 25th 1998, so it is impossible to say for sure.

Police boarding the Outer Edge vessel.

The tour operator offered their support and sympathy, but for the Australian public and the families of Tom and Eileen, this simply wasn’t enough. The tour company had committed gross negligence and was directly responsible.

After 3 days of scouring the waters day and night, the search was called off when no signs of life could be found.

The Next Discovery

The next update in the harrowing disappearance of Tom and Eileen Lonergan would not come until 6 to 12 months later, depending on which source you read.

Many months after the pair initially disappeared, a woman’s wetsuit, the same size Eileen wore, washed ashore on Port Douglas beach.

Whilst there were tears in the armpits and buttocks and signs of barnacle growth, there were no signs of blood.

Two inflatable dive jackets with the names ‘Tom and Eileen’ written on them, along with Eileen’s fins and the couple’s compressed air tanks, were also found with the wet suit.

Port Douglas Beach is around 75 miles from where the pair were last seen.

The final and perhaps most chilling discovery was a diver’s slate that belonged to Tom and Eileen.

In a horrifying twist, the message on the slate was still intact, capturing the couple’s final words: “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 Jan 25 1998 3pm. Please help to rescue us before we die. Help!!!”

This discovery reignited the case once more, and this time, new evidence came to light.

The Aftermath

In the aftermath of the couple’s disappearance, their diaries were leaked in a move many have dubbed as highly insensitive.

In one entry, Tom wrote, “Like a student who has finished an exam I feel that my life is complete and I am ready to die.” Similarly, Eileen wrote, “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. He hopes to die a quick and painless death and he hopes it happens soon.”

The diary entries went on to explain how both Tom and Eileen were deeply unhappy with their lives despite the happily married couple facade.

The pair were ready to give up on the marriage, and some have even speculated the pair planned to go out together.

Whilst this is a feasible theory based on the diary entries, their method of doing so also contradicts what Eileen said. If Tom wanted a quick and painless exit, why would he choose to perish at sea from dehydration, starvation or delirium?

This has led others to believe that Tom and Eileen ‘hitched a ride’ on a passing boat and started a new life away from their old responsibilities.

Again, this theory holds very little weight, and there is no evidence to prove that this is the case. Somehow, MV Outer Edge managed to skirt responsibility.

The Queensland State Coroner held an inquest in which they stated, “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.”

This ruling spurred a court case; however, as previously mentioned, Mr Nairn was able to skirt responsibility when the jury found him not guilty. The MV Outer Edge soon went out of business, and Nairn ceased all operations at sea.

The general consensus is that Tom and Eileen did not succumb to an animal attack as the media had so wildly sensationalised, but succumbed due to dehydration and delirium.

The bodies of Tom and Eileen Lonergan have never been found, and their families are left without answers.


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