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October 1998 Vol. 13, No. 10   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Left on The Outer Edge

from the October, 1998 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Police investigating the January disappearance of a Louisiana couple while they were diving on the Great Barrier Reef have concluded they died after the charter boat Outer Edge left them at sea. (See the complete story in the March Undercurrent.)

Many people in the Aussie diving industry claimed that Thomas (33) and Eileen Lonergan (28) had faked their deaths or even committed suicide. One dive operator claimed that he returned the same day with three extra divers aboard his boat. A television crew and a hotel worker claimed to have seen the Lonergans months after they disappeared.

But police said they discovered no evidence that the Lonergans invented their deaths and speculated much of it was a campaign to keep the dive industry in a good light.

The Lonergans were among the twenty-six divers and five crew aboard the charter boat Outer Edge. After the final dive of the day, the boat departed without them for the forty-plus mile trip back to the mainland. They did not miss them until two days later, when the boat crew found some of their gear aboard.

Weeks after their disappearance, a fin with "Eileen L" printed on the bottom, her BC and wetsuit hood, and one of their tanks were found washed up on remote beaches. In July, fishermen found a slate with the plea "Please help us. Find us soon before we die." Both signed the message.

True to form, however, the industry organization Dive Queensland alleged the Lonergans had planted the slate as part of a fake disappearance. However, police tests and marine growth showed that the slate was in the water for several months and it was not a hoax.

During the inquest that took place in Cairns last month, it was unclear whether a head count had been taken. A dive instructor who initially told police he did not take a head count changed his story three days later. Another said that the head counts were a "very weak link" in the security chain. "The tourists are constantly moving around you. They're on holidays, they're chatting and drinking, wandering around."

It was learned that the crew had ignored two pairs of shoes left on the dock (the Lonergans) after all the other passengers had taken theirs (divers remove shoes before boarding and pick them up afterwards). A bus driver who was to pick up the Lonergans reported she had told the Outer Edge captain and owner Jack Nairn that she couldn't find them. The day after their disappearance, a diver aboard the Outer Edge returning to the same reef found six dive weights at the bottom of the sea and took them to Nairn, who said it was a bonus to find extra weights and said "you might find a tank or something out there as well."

The most plausible explanation for their disappearance came from Ben Cropp, one of Australia's leading shark experts and divers. Cropp, who has made more than 10,000 dives in forty-eight years, told the inquest:

"My personal feeling is they were taken by a tiger (shark) in the first 24 to 48 hours. A tiger given a day or two...would be a very serious threat. You'd appear helpless to them. They just circle and watch. They may do this for an hour before moving closer and may follow you for another hour before they take that first bite, and then you don't have a hope because they've made up their mind. Then the shark would concentrate on the second person, following them for an hour or perhaps all night. They're a pretty horrible feeding machine when they make up their mind."

Cropp said that if a shark did not kill the Lonergans, then "dehydration and despair" would have killed them. Officials said they expect manslaughter charges to be filed.

On another note, in late July the Outer Edge picked up three divers whose craft had overturned and was half submerged in rough weather.

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