LEFT BEHIND: ‘So many chances for them to be found’
THERE were times Kathy Hains wished the conspiracy theories were true.
She would be furious, but it would mean her daughter and son-in-law were still alive.
Rumours that US tourists Thomas, 34, and Eileen Lonergan, 28, faked their own deaths surfaced almost immediately after they disappeared scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef 20 years ago today.
The wild story was something to cling on to as huge waves of grief crashed down on her.
Even now, two decade later, Mrs Hains hesitates slightly when asked about the possibility the couple are still alive.
It's a -10C night in Baton Rouge, a city in Louisiana in the southern US, and her twang draws out the word "no" as if she's calculating, for the millionth time, the however unlikely probability.
"No, I don't think so," she told The Courier-Mail.
"I was just kind of wishing it was true. Wouldn't it be wonderful if they were just doing something weird. I'd be angry but so thrilled that they were still alive.
"It would seem kind of strange but you just hang on to whatever threads you can."
Deep down she has no doubt the couple perished alone together, abandoned by their dive cruise.
The Lonergans were holidaying in Australia after finishing a stint with the US Peace Corps in Fiji before returning home to Louisiana.
They had chosen to go scuba diving with Port Douglas' Outer Edge on St Crispins Reef about 38 nautical miles off the coast.
The Sunday trip should have been a straightforward experience for the couple who had logged 160 dives between them.
But after they entered the water for their third dive of the day, they were never seen again.
Outer Edge left the dive site without them and took two and half days to report them missing.
"It was very strange. I remember going over the opportunities that people passed up to go back and find them," Mrs Hains said.
"I kept thinking there were so many chances they could have been found, but they weren't."
Despite this, Mrs Hains speaks with incredible warmth, not only for the country where her daughter died, but also those responsible for the deaths.
In October 1998, coroner Noel Nunan ruled out the possibility the Lonergans were alive and committed Outer Edge owner Geoffrey Nairn to trial for manslaughter.
Nairn, who died in 2015, eventually beat the charge.
This was an outcome the deeply religious Mrs Hains and husband John had been praying for.
"How can you be angry when somebody makes a mistake, that just doesn't make any sense," Mrs Hains said last week.
"It was breaking my heart thinking how much he must have be suffering, just to think that you're responsible for someone's death.
"That's tough, that's a real hard thing to live with and my heart just went out to all those people who were on the boat."
The Hains travelled to Australia three times after the Lonergans went missing.
They were fearful about arriving during a worldwide media storm but they ended up falling in love with the country.
"It kind of help make it bearable to go over there and be where they were and meet the people they met. It was special for us, it wasn't hard for us at all," she said.
"One point in time I was wondering if I was royalty everyone was just so gracious."
Although it's been 20 years since she died, Eileen is still very much part of the family.
"We tell funny stories about her because she was a very interesting child and my other three children just laugh about the weird things she might have done," she said.
"She's still a part of our family and still a part of our conversation all the time because she was unique, she really was."
The Lonergans' disappearance inspired the fictional 2003 movie Open Water.