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Posted by on May 24, 2008 at 18:14:08:

In Reply to: Clear thinking kept stranded divers alive posted by on May 24, 2008 at 18:11:06:

ALL they could do was cling to each other. For 19 hours Alison Dalton and Dick Neely struggled to survive after being separated from their dive boat.

The pair went missing on Friday afternoon while diving on the Barrier Reef.

Their rescue off the coast north of Airlie Beach yesterday ended a remarkable tale of survival - coupled with plenty of good luck.

"We're exhausted," the couple said yesterday after being hoisted by helicopter after drifting 14.5km.

"We're fine but tired and we're really thankful to our rescuers," they added as they were taken in wheelchairs from a helicopter that had flown them to Townsville Base Hospital. They were released last night.

Linking their dive belts to ensure they weren't separated while they floated through the night probably saved their lives, rescuers said.

They had talked to each other to stay awake and to take their minds off their growing thirst, while their wetsuits protected them from jellyfish and sea snakes, said Danielle Scott-Flanders, a friend of the couple.

The drama was a reminder of the disappearance of Americans Eileen and Thomas Lonergan who vanished in 1998 after being left behind by a dive boat northeast of Cairns. They were never found.

Volunteer Andrew Barker, who first spotted Mr Neely and Ms Dalton, said the couple "were on their backs, flippers out of the water".

"They were waving frantically . . . then they were blowing kisses at us," he said

Michaela Moss, president of Volunteer Marine Rescue in Proserpine which joined in the search, said drifting through the night would have been "terrifying".

"It was dark . . . there are currents, there was a wind of about 15 to 20 knots and a fairly decent swell which makes it hard to keep your mouth clear of water," she said. "They are extremely, extremely lucky."

The ordeal for the couple - who live together in California where they are diving instructors -- began when they drifted away from their group while underwater in Gary's Lagoon near Bait Reef, northeast of Hayman Island in the Whitsundays.

Ms Dalton, 40, an American, and Mr Neely, 38, originally from Britain, surfaced about 200m away from a designated meeting point and began frantically waving to crew on the dive charter vessel Pacific Star.

As the crew and the four other divers on the charter vessel began to search for the pair, Ms Dalton and Mr Neely battled a strong current which dragged them further away from the boat and off the shallow coral outcrop and into deeper water.

As they watched the Pacific Star begin sweeping the area, the pair realised any chance of staying alive depended on themselves. They linked their belts in a "survival embrace" and stopped waving to conserve energy. As the light faded, they activated orange buoyancy control devices.

On the Pacific Star, all eyes were on the water as the boat circled the dive areas. But as the light began to fade, the crew radioed their Airlie Beach base and authorities launched a search.

By then it was three hours after Ms Dalton and Mr Neely had failed to meet up with their group. The time delay would be part of an investigation by Whitsunday CIB, Water Police and Workplace Health and Safety, police said.

Once the search was activated, it involved three aircraft - two with infra-red night-search capabilities and a small flotilla of water police and volunteer rescue craft.

By 2.30am, the aircraft needed to refuel and weather conditions prompted police to call for a resumption of the search at dawn - although the Pacific Star stayed out all night searching.

When the sun began rising about 6.30am, 10 aircraft began a grid search of the area and a contingent of search boats scoured the water.

It was a helicopter from Hamilton Island, with two SES volunteers aboard, that spotted the exhausted and emotional pair about 8.30am.

But the helicopter had no winch and had to hover above the couple as the pilot radioed a nearby Emergency Management Queensland helicopter.

EMQ rescue officer John Chate said the pair were "extremely pleased" to be found and very thirsty.

"It wasn't the best conditions to be searching in," he said. "The odds were stacked against them."

Rescue aircrew officer Darren Bobin, a former Queensland police diver, said the couple were extremely lucky to have survived.

"In that time, with a strong current, they could have ended up anywhere, " he said.

Queensland deputy police commissioner Ian Stewart said the couple had swum outside the lagoon where the rest of their group were diving, but had done all the right things to ensure their survival -- staying calm and alert, strapping themselves together and conserving energy.

"They were lucky - because of their experience and the way the search was conducted," Deputy Commissioner Stewart said.

It was reported last night the couple had already accepted "a paid offer" for a media interview.

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