Couple left in shark-infested waters when boat forgot them have never been found

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Twenty-three years after they were last spotted diving off tour boat the Outer Edge at around 3pm, 40 miles off the coast of Queensland, there are still no signs of Tom and Eileen Lonergan.

The American couple arrived at Port Douglas in northern Australia in January 1998 looking for adventure, and adventure is what they got — abandoned in shark-infested waters and left to suffer a horrifying fate that went on to inspire a hit film years later.

After a two-year tour of duty with the US Peace Corps in Tuvalu and Fiji, the Lonergans decided they would visit the must-see Great Barrier Reef.

Married for 10 years, Tom and Eileen met and wedded while at university in Louisiana.

Eileen's passion for scuba diving soon converted Tom. The Queensland trip was the conclusion of their interests and, in a way, their relationship too.

Not that it was all plain sailing.

Eileen's diary just two weeks before the trip included the eerie claim Tom had a "death wish".

The 28-year-old wrote: "He hopes to die a quick and painless death, and he hopes it happens soon.

"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."

Still, nothing seemed wrong when the couple went on their Great Barrier Reef adventure in January 1998.

Not until the Outer Edge crew and their fellow divers abandoned them in the middle of the ocean, leaving them to drown – or be eaten by tiger sharks.

Massive deadly sharks are often spotted off the Queensland coast, measuring 5m in length. Against the terrifying species, the Lonergans' fate would be sealed.

The couple were last spotted by fellow divers 12m under the sea, exploring the world-famous ocean ecosystem, as was their dream.

After just under an hour below the surface, the Lonergans reemerged to get back on the boat.

But the Outer Edge was nowhere to be seen — it had returned to Port Douglas without two of its passengers.

Shockingly, it wasn't until two days later that anyone realised the Lonergans had been left behind.

Skipper and Outer Edge owner Jack Nairn found the couple's dive bag with their wallet and papers.

A search by the police and Australian navy for the couple began swiftly, but they had no luck.

Over the following months traces of the Lonergans' fate started to appear. A wetsuit of Eileen's size – with no blood on it. Inflatable dive jackets with Tom and Eileen's names on.

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And finally, six months later a dive slate dated to the morning after they went missing.

The tragic inscribed message read: "To anyone [who] can help us: We have been abandoned on A[gin]court Reef by MV Outer Edge 25 Jan 98 3pm.

"Please help us [come] to rescue us before we die. Help!!!"

The state of the evidence suggested a shark attack was not likely – unlike the bloody climax of Open Water – but by then hopes for the Lonergans' recovery were fading.

The growing international incident between Australia and America turned ugly, as lawyers for Outer Edge suggested the couple had vanished on purpose, using the (leaked) diary entries to bolster their argument.

Suicide or even murder-suicide at the hands of Tom became a possibility, though this was dismissed by the Lonergans' families as slanderous and outlandish.

Ultimately the Outer Edge was held accountable and Nairn pleaded guilty to negligence.

Coroner Noel Nunan in his closing remarks told the inquiry into the disappearance that skipper Nairn should bear the brunt of responsibility.

He 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 on criminal evidence."

Nairn was found not guilty by the jury, but his Outer Edge Boat Company did go out of business.

The scandal even provoked a law change in Queensland which now means diving boat skippers must complete headcounts of all divers onboard.

And of course, the Lonergans' horrific disappearance was the inspiration for the 2003 hit film Open Water, which followed a young American couple left for dead after an ocean dive.

Open Water clearly captured the public imagination, specifically in the US where it grossed $30 million on a tiny budget.

Yet even the worldwide legacy of the Lonergans' disappearance – the political crisis, the legal wranglings, the Hollywood treatment – couldn't bring them back to shore.

  • Sharks
  • Holidays
  • Animals
  • Hollywood

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