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Mystery in the deep blue sea

A honeymoon scuba dive ended up being one woman's final trip

Video
  Tina’s parents: ‘She was a good girl’
Tommy and Cindy Thomas share stories of happy times raising Tina when she was a teenager.
Video
  Tina ‘loved making everyone laugh’
Amanda remembers her best friend, Tina, and how much joy she brought into everyone’s lives.
Video
  Tina’s dive instructor talks
Assistant Dive Instructor Craig Cleckler recounts Tina's first day taking group scuba lessons at a local quarry, as part of 'Miracle in the Deep Blue Sea'.  Dennis Murphy updates the story of honeymooners whose scuba diving excursion becomes a murder mystery, this Friday, March 11th, at 9pm/8c.
Video
  ‘Everyone who met her loved her’
Alanda talks about why she always looked up to her big sister, Tina

NBC Universal Anchors and Correspondents
Dennis Murphy
Correspondent

“When you see the Great Barrier Reef, there's something about the vastness of that whole area,” said Paula Snyder.

“When the water closes over your head, the entire rest of the world goes away,” said Doug Milsap.

It's a scuba diver's nirvana: Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Fourteen-hundred miles of coral and the spectacular sea life that thrives on it.

“It's the big, beautiful seas and the big, beautiful formations,” said Paula Snyder. “Stunning, absolutely beautiful.”

And the bones of a ship on the bottom there is the highlight of any dive trip to the reef. The Yongala lies 100 feet down and is encrusted in coral, her ghostly deck both hauntingly beautiful and a reminder of just how alien and hostile the sea can be to humans.

When in October 2003, the latest of those divers boarded their home at sea for a week of reef exploring and cruising, none could imagine the horror that awaited one of them. The Yongala was about to claim another victim.

Among the guests that week were two American couples, great friends who'd been diving together for 25-years. Ken and Paula Snyder and Ginger and Doug Milsap.

They were introduced to the crew of the Spoilsport, as their big catamaran was called, then mixed and mingled with the other guests.

Paula Snyder: They had little champagne and fruit-type thing going on. And that's where we met Tina and Gabe.

Tina and Gabe Watson turned out to be young honeymooners from Alabama. Gabe was the seasoned diver of the pair. Bubbly, smiling Tina was a novice. A pretty bride.

Dennis Murphy: They looked like a good couple to you?

Ginger Milsap: They looked great. I remember Tina being very loving and complimentary toward Gabe.

Paula Snyder: She was just an absolute little princess. And he was tall and strapping and, you know, here they are on their honeymoon. And it was sort of, "Oh my gosh. Aren't they cute?"

The wedding, just 11 days before back in Alabama, had been just as romantic as the one Tina had long dreamed about.

Her mom and dad were as proud as they could be of their beautiful girl.

Amanda Phillips: She looked at me and said “I’m a princess bride” and I said, "You sure are." And she left with her dad in the limo … I think I cried almost all day long. It was the last one of my girls to get married.

Tina’s maid of honor and best friend from high-school, Amanda Phillips, was surprised that Tina would choose to go diving on her honeymoon.

Amanda Phillips: I would have said that she would have wanted to go to Europe, or you know, done like, castle tours or done something in the Caribbean, but she said that she wanted to go see the "Nemo" fish. And she wanted to see the sea turtles and go see Nemo.

Gabe had given Tina notice when they were dating that she was going to have to pick up on some of his hobbies -- fishing and scuba diving, for instance -- if they were going to grow together as a couple.

Cindy Thomas: I worried, and she would say, "Mom, he's a certified rescue diver. You do not have to worry.

Now with her bridegroom Gabe as a dive-buddy, Tina and the other guests settled into their cabins as the Spoilsport motored into the night. The next morning, they awoke to find themselves moored above the first of the dive sights, the much- anticipated wreck of the Yongala.

The dive master briefed the guests on what to expect below: the visibility, the currents. He reviewed the safety procedures.
Image: Tina
Tina on her wedding day.

Ginger Milsap: Everybody just anticipates, you know, the ultimate dive.

Diving the Yongala follows a very set routine. It's not exactly an amusement park ride, but close.

Divers are taken out by an inflatable to a buoy.

Once in the water, they follow a permanent chain down to the bow of the wreck, where it's anchored.

The divers let go of the chain and then let the prevailing current carry them some 300 feet over the deck.

In scuba, this is called a drift dive. When they've taken in the wreck, they grab the second chain anchored off the stern and pull themselves back up to the surface where another dinghy is waiting to take them back to the big boat.

The Snyders and Milsaps loved the experience.

Ginger Milsap: You're literally just drifting along seeing this fabulous --

Paula Snyder: It was incredible.

Ginger Milsap: --Imax of this ship, you know, with all the growth and everything, it really was a feast for the eyes.

The Snyders and Milsaps hadn't seen the honeymooners Gabe and Tina go in the water.

As they were getting ready for a second dive, they noticed a flurry of activity on the back deck where the inflatables were launched and retrieved.

Doug Milsap: I saw crew members running over to the side of the boat. Controlled, no-- no panic.

Ken Snyder: You do this often enough, you realize something just wasn't right. And then when I saw Gabe coming up by himself in the rubber raft, I knew we were missing a diver.

Doug Milsap: He was hitting the side of the the inflatable as it was coming back to the boat. "Oh, my God, I’ve lost her. I don't know where she is. I couldn't find her. I don't know what happened."

A few minutes after Gabe surfaced, the veteran diving friends looked across the water at another dive boat that had anchored nearby. And there on its deck they could make out someone giving CPR to a lifeless female diver. It was Tina, the bride of 11 days.

Ken Snyder: We could see her body on the deck of the Jazz II and see the physicians working on her.

Dennis Murphy: Did you see Gabe?

Paula Snyder: I went over and asked him if I could do anything for him. And he just said, “Well, I need a hug.” So I gave him a hug and I held him.

Nineteen minutes passed. The doctors still hadn't given up.

Another tourist on the dive that morning snapped an underwater pic and unwittingly captured an image of Tina Watson, lying on her right side on the ocean bottom, no bubbles coming from the regulator in her mouth.

The dive instructor accompanying that photographer realized immediately someone was in serious trouble. He kicked down to 100-feet and recognized that it was one of his guests, Tina, with her eyes open but unresponsive. He scooped her up and made his way to the surface as fast as he could. But the doctors topside could not resuscitate her. At 11:21 a.m. on Oct. 22, 2003, Tina Watson was declared dead.

One of the doctors who'd worked on Tina, to no avail, crossed the short distance to the Spoilsport and broke the news to her husband.

Paula Snyder: Gabe just said, "Are you kidding?" and we were standing up at that point. And we just all held each other and just fell down. I mean, we were just in disbelief. it was just tragic. Just tragic.

Half a world away, in an Alabama suburb, the family of the bride they'd seen off on her honeymoon not two weeks before were hearing news that was, well, simply unbelievable.

Tina’s dad, Tommy Thomas, was out of town on a business trip when Gabe’s father reached him.

Tommy Thomas: I answered the cell phone. And David, Gabe’s father, said, “I don't know any other way to tell you this. There's been an accident. Tina drowned. Here's my pastor." And he handed the phone to his preacher. And I just--

Cindy Thomas: Went to your knees.

Tommy Thomas: I went to my knees. I couldn't even think at the time to ask what happened, you know?

In a daze he made his way to the airport and the plane that would take him home to Alabama. It was his greatest hope at that moment that at least he'd be able to break the awful news to his wife Cindy and daughter Alanda and in person.

But Alanda had, by then, already arrived at work. She knew as soon as she walked in something had happened. Something bad.

Alanda Thomas: Everybody was looking at me crazy. And asking me if I was OK. And I was like, "What are y'all talking about?" Nobody really wanted to tell me what was going on.

Her boss told her to call her father. It was about her sister.

Tommy Thomas: And she went, "Daddy, what happened to Tina?" And it just broke my heart for her. I said, "How did you find out?" And she said, "I walked into work. And everybody knew but me." And that just blew me away. We had just found out.

Alanda Thomas: And I was scared that my mom would get up and hear.

Dennis Murphy: You had to tell your mother?

Alanda Thomas: Right after finding out myself. Yeah. But I just couldn't imagine her getting up and finding out by, you know, someone leaving a message on the answering machine.

Cindy Thomas: I was up in bed. I was sleeping late. And she came in the room. And I saw, I mean, her face. And what went across my mind first was -- because of him traveling -- was something had happened. And she said, "Mama, it's Tina." And she was just crying. She was bawling. And she said, "It's Tina. She's dead."

The shock wave was tearing through the Thomas family. In those first confusing moments, Cindy Thomas managed to reach Gabe’s mother. Cindy said she told her that she was on her way to the airport at that moment to fly out to Australia.

Cindy Thomas: If I'd have been in my right mind, I'd have been thinking, "OK, how would you already have made all your arrangements if you just found out?" But, I was just thinking, "OK, she's going." And I said just, "Please hold my baby when you get there. Just hold her."

It was dawning on Tina’s parents that they'd been the last to find out. They would learn later that Tina had been dead for some 12 hours before they started getting phone calls.

Cindy Thomas: Even though we had all these people that knew and even though his mother was on the way to get on a plane, we are still thinking she just died, at least within the last few hours.
Video
  Husband blames strong currents for wife's death
During an interview with Australian police, Gabe Watson tells investigators his version of what happened the day his wife died while they were scuba diving at the Great Barrier Reef.

Finally with the intervention of the American consulate in Australia, the Thomas family reached the person they needed to hear the story from most, Tina’s new husband, Gabe. It was then nearly a full day since Tina had drowned. Father, mother and sister were all on the phone line together.

Tommy Thomas: Cindy started the conversation. And she asked him several times if he was doing OK. If he was all right.

Then Gabe told them the information they were desperate for: what had happened to Tina. This, they say, was his story: the couple was down about 40 feet when Tina gave her husband the thumbs up signal to surface. So he took her hand and headed back to the anchor rope, but halfway there she started sinking. Her hand reached out, knocked his mask loose, and Gabe had to let go of her to adjust it. With the mask in place, he saw his wife, sinking to the bottom faster than he could swim for her, so he surfaced for help.

Tommy Thomas: We've had that picture in our mind for a long time, of him going down after her, and her looking at him with her arms stretched up towards him

Alanda Thomas: And I felt sorry for him, you know, to have to live with that forever.


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