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Australia Diver Apologizes

January 30, 1998

SYDNEY, Australia (AP) _ A scuba diving instructor expressed regret today for returning to shore without an American couple, still missing after being left behind on their diving cruise to the Great Barrier Reef.

``Somehow they fell through the system,″ said Karl Jesienowski, who was aboard the tour boat Outer Edge when the couple disappeared. ``I apologize, I sincerely apologize.″

Thomas Joseph Lonergan, 33, and his wife Eileen Cassidy Lonergan, 28, of Baton Rouge, La., were last seen Sunday as they entered the water as part of a group of 26 people diving at St. Crispins Reef, 43 miles northwest of the Port Douglas resort in Queensland state.

The couple, who were experienced divers, were not noticed missing for more than 48 hours, when crew members realized some of their belongings were still on the boat. Police were notified and a massive search began Wednesday.

Jesienowski said a head count of divers was taken before the boat left the dive area. However, he did not explain why operators did not realize then that the Americans were missing.

He said the Americans had specifically asked to dive separately.

``They asked specifically not to dive with a dive master, so they were diving on their own, which is cool,″ Jesienowski said. ``But if they didn’t dive the plan, then all of a sudden they come to the surface and they’re stuck ... there’s no boat there.″

A full-scale search resumed this morning with 17 planes, two helicopters and a number of boats scouring a more than 3,200-square-nautical-mile area of ocean and a big strip of the coast.

Acting police superintendent Col McCallum said the chances the couple could have survived after so many days were miniscule, and said currents could have carried their bodies far from the original dive area.

McCallum and the couple’s relatives today rejected suggestions that notes found in the Lonergans’ hotel room indicating they had recently suffered a ``personal trauma,″ showed the couple were suicidal.

``They were personal notes and I would emphasize this. They were not suicidal notes,″ McCallum told a news conference. Authorities have not elaborated on what the notes contained.

Elizabeth Lonergan, the missing man’s mother, told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio from New Orleans that she ``would be willing to bet″ the notes had nothing to do with the couple’s disappearance.

Authorities have not ruled out bringing charges against the tour company, Outer Edge Dive.

The Queensland government also issued a formal apology today for the tragedy, after government ministers met U.S. Consul Matthew McKeever, who visited Port Douglas.

``We share in the grief and despair of the family, friends and colleagues of the missing couple,″ Tourism Minister Bruce Davidson said.

``This week’s events will focus our attention on doing all that is humanly possible to ensure that such an incident is never repeated.″

Elizabeth Lonergan said the family was devastated that the couple’s disappearance could have been caused by ``a failure on somebody’s part to do what they should’ve ... If it’s that, it’s even worse.″

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