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Friday, October 9, 1998 Published at 16:46 GMT 17:46 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

Missing divers 'unlawfully killed'

The couple were diving on the Great Barrier Reef

The skipper of an Australian diving boat has been charged with manslaughter for accidentally leaving an American couple stranded on the Great Barrier Reef early this year.

Coroner Noel Nunan, ending an inquest into the disappearance of divers Thomas and Eileen Lonergan from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, said the two had drowned or been killed by sharks after being left at St Crispin Reef off north Queensland state in late January.

He formally charged skipper Jack Nairn, whose boat took the divers to the reef, with their unlawful killing.

"The skipper should be vigilant for the safety of passengers and ensure safety measures are carried out," Mr Nunan is quoted as saying in court.

"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."

No headcount

The Lonergans, both experienced divers, were reported missing two days after a scuba-diving trip with 24 others.

They were last seen on the reef on 25 January. No headcount of passengers was taken at the time, and their disappearance was only reported after luggage left in the boat was examined.

Diving gear belonging to the couple was found washed up on a crocodile-infested beach about two weeks after their disappearance, but their bodies were never found.

Fake death claim dismissed

The coroner dismissed suggestions that the Lonergans had either committed suicide or faked their own disappearance.

"From available evidence it is not possible to say how the couple died but probably by drowning or shark in two or three days after accidentally being left behind," Mr Nunan said.

Thomas Lonergan, 33, and Eileen, 28, were visiting Queensland on their way home from serving in the Peace Corps in Fiji. They were described by Mr Nunan as "young, idealistic and in love with each other".

The skipper's dive company, Outer Edge, also faces separate charges under workplace health and safety laws. No trial date has been set.

When asked if he had anything to say, Mr Nairn said: "I am not guilty of the charge."

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