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January 2000 Vol. 15, No. 1   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Australia's Lonergan Trial

learning how to count heads

from the January, 2000 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

The skipper of the dive boat Outer Edge, charged with manslaughter after leaving behind two American divers on Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef, was found innocent by an Australian court. The missing pair went unnoticed until the crew found some of their belongings two days later.

The remains of the Americans, Tom and Eileen Lonergan of Baton Rouge, LA, have never been found, although a fin, BC, wetsuit hood, and tank belonging to the couple were found, and a slate washed ashore with a message in Eileen’s handwriting with their names, address, and phone number, and a request for help because they had been abandoned.

During the trial, the defense argued that it was possible the couple had faked their deaths and feigned their disappearance.

A journalist attending the trial told Undercurrent that he visited the site of the Lonergan’s disappearance and noted that the two-story tower of a day-boat mooring 2.3 nautical miles away could be seen from the surface of the water, leading to speculation about whether they would have swum toward it. Also, several other boats overnighted in the area, and their lights would have been visible. The weather was good and the seas were calm and flat, people reported.

The skipper of the charter boat Quicksilver told the court that he heard an American accent among his 288 supposedly Italian passengers during a dive trip to the same area the day after the Lonergans disappeared. He said the boat count was three more at the end of the day, but he did not investigate.

During the trial, the defense presented nine witnesses who claimed they had seen the Lonergans in Queensland during the days following their disappearance. Because newspapers and television broadcasts carried photos of the couple, they were recognizable.

Some people theorized that the couple wanted to commit suicide. Six months before the couple vanished, Tom Lonergan wrote: “I feel as though my life is complete and I’m ready to die.” Just 16 days before they disappeared, Eileen Lonergan wrote that her husband had a death wish.

The prosecution theorized that after being left at sea and surviving at least overnight, they succumbed to shark attacks. No one has heard from the couple nor have their bank accounts been touched.

No matter what happened to the Lonergans, boat captain Jack Nairn said as a new owner of the boat, he accepted responsibility for leaving them behind, but he had delegated responsibility for diver safety to the experienced crew he inherited with the boat. He laid the blame for a failed head count at the feet of dive masters George Pyrihow and Kathy Traverso, who he said had told him all divers were accounted for.

Pyrihow claimed he had informed Nairn he could find only 24 of the 26 passengers during a head count after the final dive of the day and was told to add two swimmers who were in the water. Nairn denied any such conversation had taken place and said he would have ordered a recount if there were a discrepancy.

None of the three crew members could remember who was in charge of the diver’s log book or who had done the head counts following the first two dives of the day. But all testified it was standard practice to assume a head count had been done if the boat’s engines were started. They were, and the Outer Edge returned to shore without the Lonergans.

After the death of the two Americans — and most observers believe they did die at sea — the state of Queensland issued regulations for dive operations. They instruct operators on how to conduct head counts, maintain lookouts, and provide advice about the strenuous nature of diving and snorkeling and its potential to worsen existing medical conditions. In the past four years, 13 scubadiving deaths involving six tourists were recorded in Queensland. Twenty people have died snorkeling, all but two of them tourists. Unfit and elderly Westerners are more likely to die than Asian tourists.

Ironically, in September, two Japanese divers spent nearly five hours lost off the Great Barrier Reef after they became disoriented during a dive on Ribbon Reef, 150 km. northeast of Cairns. Unlike the Lonergans, these divers left their boat behind. After being located on choppy seas by a rescue helicopter, the brother and sister pair were cold and shaken when they returned to their live-aboard, the Reef Explorer, the same boat that was in the news a year ago when passengers had to tie up a skipper who was trying to ground the boat on a reef. The woman hid her face and refused to make comments to reporters, because, according to Wayne Inglis, Reef Explorer spokesman, she believed she “lost face in making a mistake.”

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