How Harrison Okene Survived 100 ft Below the Ocean’s Surface For Almost 3 Days
When Harrison Okene went out to work on the Jascon-4, the vessel he worked as a chef on, he had no idea that it would be his last time at sea, let alone the events that would take place and leave him stranded 100 feet below the water’s surface for more than two days.
This is an unbelievable tale that would allow this resilient young man to become an accidental aquanaut, but also one that doesn’t have the happiest of endings. This is how Harrison Okene survived underwater for sixty hours.
Business As Usual
It was an early morning on May 26th, out at sea and Harrison Okene was one of twelve men aboard a tugboat in the waters off the coast of Nigeria. It was around 4:30 am and Okene was just getting ready for his day. He was the chef aboard the ship which required him to be away from his wife and family for weeks and sometimes months at a time.
The vessel he worked for, the Jascon-4, was often hired to transport other ships within the country and to neighboring ones. Their boat was, at that moment, towing an oil tanker to its destination when something scary and unexpected happened.
The Boat Goes Down
As Okene set about his business, there was a sudden lurch. Before he knew what was happening, the contents of the bathroom were spilling over and falling on his head as the boat swung onto its side. He had no idea, at that moment, what was going on with the boat. He was confused; he said, “I was dazed, and everywhere was dark as I was thrown from one end of the small cubicle to another.”
What was even worse than the confusion was the commotion he was hearing outside. He could hear some of his crewmates shouting, but it was difficult to understand just what they were saying. Okene knew he had to get out of the bathroom and figure out just what was going on with the boat and his crew.
What Was Going On Outside
What Okene couldn’t see and what was going on outside right at that moment was a huge ocean swell or rogue wave slamming into the vessel he worked on and sometimes called home. The force was so strong that it had snapped the tow rope connecting the two boats and had caused the one with the crew to capsize.
It was unclear what was happening with the second vessel, but mayhem ensued aboard Okene’s ship. He would soon find out just how crazy and lifechanging May 26th, 2013 would be for him and the men he worked with.
Panic Set In
Before he could spring into action, he felt something that brought a chill to his entire body. After hearing the shouts, Okene felt the boat start to go down. Panic set in as he stood in the bathroom and listened to the chaos that was happening all around him.
But he wasn’t the only one who was panicking during those moments. He couldn’t see his co-workers, but he could hear them. And as bad as things were right then and there, it was about to get ten times worse for Harrison Okene and the ship he was currently on.
The Other Crew Members
As Okene stood in the bathroom as the ship turned upside down, he heard his coworkers’ shouts turn into cries and he realized something. He remembered that some of them were locked in their rooms as a safety measure against pirates; one of the necessities and precautions that was taken was for crew members to lock their doors so that pirates (who raided the seas) could not come in.
It was at that moment that Okene knew that some lives would be lost. With the water rising and the doors to most of the rooms, sealed, some of the men he worked with were going to die. And the worst part was that he could do nothing to help them. The most he could’ve done was to make sure he got to safety and hope that mostly everyone else made it out alive.
Deciding that he had to move or risk losing his life right there in the bathroom, he stumbled into the engineer’s office where he managed to find a small pocket of air. On his way there, he saw the bodies of three of his colleagues.
As he entered the room, he knew that staying in there would not be enough to stop the still climbing water, and so, he closed the door behind him. He sat there, in the small room with water still coming in around him, thinking it would fill the entire room, but it didn’t. Not wanting to be completely vulnerable in the water, he grabbed two mattresses from the bunks, sat on them, and waited.
On the Seabed
Okene didn’t know this, but stuck in the room, the boat had sunk to the depths of the ocean floor and he was almost 100 feet below the surface. He was almost naked with no fresh water and a very small supply of oxygen. But he was still optimistic.
The Jascon 4 was currently upside down and still, Okene thought there was a chance that another one of his crewmates could find him or that he would be rescued soon.
In the Darkness
At some point, while he was submerged, Okene knew without a doubt that some of his coworkers had lost their lives. He knew this because even in the darkness, he could perceive the dead bodies of the men he used to work with nearby.
Not only had he passed three of them on his way to the engineer’s room, he soon started to smell the corpses as they floated in the water nearby.
Things seemed to get worse and worse for the young chef as more time passed. There wasn’t much he could do in his position except hope to be rescued, and as he waited, the nightmare that was currently his life started to take a turn for the worst. One of the things he was able to discern in the darkness of the room was the sound of sharks and other fish gnawing at the bodies of his crewmates.
He said, “I could perceive the dead bodies of my crew were nearby. I could smell them. The fish came in and began eating the bodies. I could hear the sound.” It was an unbelievable nightmare that the young chef had found himself in and it would be a long time before things took a turn for the better.
The Effect on His Body
After some hours trapped in the boat, Okene began to feel the effects of oncoming dehydration and hunger. He desperately wanted something to eat, but there was nothing to be found in that room. But more than anything, he wanted something to drink.
He knew that he shouldn’t drink the salt water, and even when he tried to consume small amounts, it would rip the skin off his tongue. The skin on his body also started peeling away. The parts that were not on the mattresses and had been left soaking in the saline were starting to come off.
His time in the engineer’s office was not completely hopeless, however. Through what seemed like a stroke of luck, Okene managed to find a bottle of Coca-Cola, two miniature flashlights and a life vest in the room.
There on the boat, at the bottom of the ocean, Okene was thankful for the flashlight because of the darkness that engulfed him. Unfortunately, both gave out within twenty-four hours and once again, darkness took over. And it wasn’t just the darkness around him.
Soon enough, Okene’s thoughts also turned dark. After two days of praying incessantly to see his friends and family again, he began to lose hope. It was very difficult to remain positive when he was all alone in the darkness of a vessel, confined to one a small corner, not knowing whether help was on the way or not.
Furthermore, Okene had no idea how much time he had left within his air pocket. He had no food, no fresh water and almost no hope. So he turned to religion and prayed some more for the things he had before the ship went down.
The Physics of Staying Alive
By Okene’s guesses, the pocket of air he found was only about four feet high. Research estimates that the average human inhales 350 cubic feet of air every 24 hours. A professional physicist and diver said that because of the pressure, the air pocket Okene was in had been compressed four times over.
When the math was done- the air pocket was estimated to be about 216 feet, multiplied by four-scientists found that Okene had enough air to last under the surface of the ocean for approximately sixty hours, or just about two and a half days.
Carbon Dioxide Danger
But even though he had all that time to be potentially rescued, there was still a danger with this pocket of air. The gas, carbon dioxide, which is what we humans breathe out, could kill at concentrations of over five percent. It meant that with every breath he took, he was increasing the amount of carbon dioxide around him.
Luckily enough, however, carbon dioxide is a gas that can be absorbed by water, and whenever Okene moved or splashed around his air bubble, he unknowingly increased the absorption of this dangerous gas and lowered it in his air bubble, keeping it below the five percent maximum.
But there was still another danger to Okene, and it was one he was probably not aware of at that moment. That danger was hypothermia. It happens when someone’s core temperature drops below 35 degrees Celsius. It is something that could cause amnesia, confusion and unusual behavior.
Not only would Okene be a risk to himself if it took over, but he could have also died if his temperature went low enough. Again, unbeknownst to the cook, he saved his life when he fashioned a platform with the mattresses which managed to keep him above sea level. Experts say that if his body was exposed to the cold water of the ocean, he could have died in a few hours.
Thinking the Worst
Okene remembers the time when his hope began to fade. He realized that help may not be coming, as he had initially thought and the end could near. He said, “At that point, I was very scared. I said: ‘So this is how I am going to die?’ What would happen to my wife? So she will become a widow? I don’t even have a child yet. What about my mother and everybody I love – so I will never see them again?”
It was one of his lowest points in the sunken ship and a reality he never thought he would be living. But it was his life.
His Family, Ashore
While all of this was going on, Okene’s family was back on the mainland, without a clue of what was going on with their family member. That soon changed and news of his accident reached all his family members, except his wife, who had managed to lose her cell phone that same day.
Okene’s older brother did not want to tell his mother either, so he lied that there was a family meeting in Nigeria’s capital and told her of her son’s fate while she was surrounded by family. When his mother was being interviewed, she said, “I did not know that he was involved in an accident at sea, and that’s why they were dragging me to Lagos.”
What Okene didn’t know from the bottom of the ocean was that help would soon be on its way. A search and rescue team had been sent to find those who may still be alive, as well as those who weren’t so lucky.
The DCN global diving company had been employed and sent by Chevron and West African Ventures- the owners of the two vessels involved in the accident. A spokesperson from DCN admitted that they thought all hope was lost and that the job would simply be a body recovery one. He had no idea what awaited him 100 feet below the surface.
A Surge of Hope
The tugboat lay at the bottom of the Atlantic ocean, with 100 feet between Okene and the air he so desperately needed. Things were really looking down for him and he had begun to give up hope when all of a sudden, he heard the one thing that would turn his entire mood around. He heard the sound of a boat, but more specifically, the sound of an anchor dropping.
Filled with hope and relief that the sound of a vessel could be heard hammering next to the one he was on, he knew he had to make a move. Somehow, he would have to let whoever was aboard that ship know that he was alive and he needed help.
Search and Rescue
Before submerging themselves and beginning the search, the diving crew was given a briefing. They were told what had happened, they were informed of the number of passengers in the ship at the time it went down, as well as other necessary information that could help with the search.
The team did what it had to as soon as they got to the ocean floor. They quickly managed to locate ten of bodies, all of which were deceased. But knowing that there was still two others on the vessel, they knew they had to perform a comprehensive search.
The Light Disappeared
After Okene heard the sounds, he soon saw some lights beneath the water. The water around him also began to bubble and he knew without a doubt that help had come. Trying to get their attention, he quickly searched the room he was in for objects he could use to attract attention. He found a hammer and used that to bang against the side of the boat, hoping that the divers would hear.
He said, “I started using the hammer to hit the wall to attract the divers. I heard them moving about. They were far away from where I was. I did that for some minutes and stopped. After a while, the sound died.” It was a minor setback, but he refused to give up.
Taking Matters Into His Own Hands
Feeling the need to get out of his predicament, Okene made the decision to swim through the unknown, past his dead co-workers to go and find the diver. It was a big risk that he was taking, but he knew the layout of the ship after working on it for so long.
It gave him an advantage which would help him navigate, despite how dark everything was. So he took a deep breath and made his way through the dark waters. But it was not meant to be. Okene said, “He came in but he was too fast, so I saw the light, but before I could get to him, he was already out. I tried to follow him in the pitch darkness, but I couldn’t trace him, so I went back.”
Failure and Hopelessness
Before Okene could make contact with one of the divers, he ran out of air and was forced to turn back to the room that held the air pocket he had managed to survive on for the past 60 hours. But his air supply was dwindling. Although he didn’t know the mathematics of it, the sixty hours calculated by the professionals were nearly up.
As time and air were running out for the young chef, he desperately thought of the things he could do to find the diver. But luck seemed to follow Okene and he wouldn’t have to do too much because the diver would soon be heading his way again and hopefully this time, he would be saved.
He Did It!
When Okene saw the lights of the diver come closer to him, he knew he had to try, once again, to get his attention. With the diver closer this time, hopefully, he would be able to do it more easily. And with his oxygen running out, he knew he had no other option.
So, he took another deep breath and he swam. Miraculously, Okene managed to catch up with the diver underwater, but the diver still hadn’t seen him. So, he tapped on the back of his neck, forcing him to turn around.
An Unbelievable Find
When the diver, Paul McDonald, turned around, he was startled to see a body so close to him. In fact, he yelled, “corpse, corpse, corpse” into his microphone. But then Okene pulled on McDonald’s hand, letting him know that he was not dead.
Seconds later, Okene heard the words “He’s alive! He’s alive! He’s alive!” from the diver. And he knew at that moment that he would be saved. Joy consumed him, but he still had to get to the surface. And he would do whatever it took to make sure he got out of this alive.
Back Into the Air Pocket
It wasn’t quite over for Okene yet, even though he had found a diver who could save him. They needed to communicate somehow, so he led the man back into the air pocket, which he said was surreal. There, the diver gave him some sustenance in the form of water and just stood there, observing him.
Okene recalled the moment and said, “I knew when he gave me water he was observing me (to see) if I’m really human, because he was afraid.” And there were also other measures that the diver had to take before bringing Okene up to the surface.
Before the Rescue
While Okene was still under the water, the diver used hot water to warm him up, knowing the risk of hypothermia the young man faced while being under the surface for so long. Then, he was given an oxygen mask so he could finally breathe more easily.
But there was also the matter of what was going on inside Okene’s tissues, a health risk that no one could see, but one the diver knew existed. It was something that needed to be addressed before they could successfully break the surface. It would take the chef another 60 hours before he could breathe in some fresh air.
The State of His Tissues
Okene had been found, but he could not be brought to the surface right away. Because he was almost 100 feet below the surface for so many hours, there was a process he would have to go through before going all the way up and boarding the rescue boat.
A medical director at the Diving Diseases Research Center explained, “After a certain amount of time at pressure, nitrogen will dissolve into the tissues. If he’d ascended directly from 30m (100 feet) to the sea surface…it’s likely he’d have had a cardiac arrest, or at best, serious neurological issues.” So he would have to go into a decompression chamber.
The Decompression Chamber
Once Okene was saved from the sunken ship, he was placed in a decompression chamber for an additional 60 hours. Also called a hyperbaric or recompression chamber, these are sealed chambers that have high-pressure environments inside. They are used to treat decompression sickness (physiological effects caused by gas bubbles which gather in the body because of a relatively quick transition from a high-pressure environment to a low pressure one), among other things.
Decompression sickness was likely something that Okene had; further health issues would only manifest after he got back to shore. Going into the decompression chamber was the only way that it would be safe for him to return to the surface.
The Surface, At Last
When Okene got to the surface, he had no idea how much time he had really spent below the surface. He said, “When we came out, I saw the stars in the sky and I thought I must have been in the water for the whole day. It was after I left the DCC (decompression chamber) that I was told that I had spent over two days there.”
Many things went through his mind when the revelation hit him. He had spent more than two days trapped in a sunken vessel, and another two and a half in a decompression chamber. He was more than excited to be above the water, but he didn’t know that this tragedy was far from over.
The Bad News
When Okene was rescued, he had no idea that he was the only one who had survived. While he had heard some of his crewmates screaming at the top of their lungs when the boat was sinking, and he knew that some were trapped in their rooms, and the fact that he saw three bodies on his way to safety, he still assumed that he wasn’t the only one who made it out.
When he found out that he was the only survivor, that everyone else was dead, with the exception of one crewmate who was still missing, he was heartbroken. And he felt guilty.
Search Called Off
Unfortunately for the remaining crew member, rescue would never come. Just a week after Okene and the bodies of the ten deceased crewmates were discovered, bad news in the form of the search being called off happened.
West African Ventures issued a statement that said that it had ceased any and all attempts to recover any other bodies that might still be in the vessel. The integrity of the ship could not be trusted and the company was not willing to endanger the lives of its employees to try to save the life of a person they were certain was dead. They said, “We are grateful for their professional service, as well as the contributions of many other personnel who gave all their efforts to this challenging recovery operation.”
For Okene, getting to the safety of land and reuniting with his family was far from the end of his troubles. In some ways, another nightmare was just beginning. Most Nigerian people tend to be very superstitious and or religious and they thought a bad omen followed Okene home.
It was clear as day when he walked around, but what surprised him the most was one of the sources- his very one religious leader. One Sunday after his rescue, he was recounting what had happened to him during a church service. When he was done, the pastor of his church flat out asked him whether he used black magic to survive. Okene asked himself, “I was so surprised! How could a man of God be saying this?” And that is the reputation that followed him upon his return, despite him denying any use of sorcery of any kind.
The black magic rumors were also one of the reasons why Okene made a decision that he probably came to regret as time passed. Because of what was being said about him, he decided that it would be for the best if he didn’t go to the funerals of any of his crew members. He simply could not bring himself to do it.
When asked why, Okene said, “I couldn’t go because I didn’t know what the family will say, thinking ‘Why is he the only one to survive.’” And that was a thought that haunted him almost daily after he was rescued.
Okene, like most of his fellow Nigerians, was also religious. He was haunted by survivor’s guilt so often that he found himself asking why he was the only one to get out alive. He said, “Every week I ask God, ‘Why only me? Why did my colleagues have to die?’”
It was something that he struggled with for a very long time. Coming to accept that he was the only one out of the men he knew and worked who had managed to survive did nothing to comfort him. In fact, the entire encounter was something that he relived during his waking moments, and also when he was asleep.
It’s safe to say that Okene suffered from severe post-traumatic stress disorder because of the incident. He showed all the classic signs, some of which included re-experiencing the trauma, difficulty sleeping and avoiding certain people. His wife was the person closest to him who saw it firsthand.
She said that seven months after the event, Okene was still suffering from the nightmares. In an interview, she revealed, “When he is sleeping, he has that shock, he will just wake up in the night saying ‘Honey see, the bed is sinking, we are in the sea.’”
When Okene had settled back home and had adjusted to life back on land as best as he knew how, he revealed something to everyone. He said that he made a pact with God while he was on the ocean floor, one that may or may not have saved his life, depending on what you believe.
According to the young chef, he said, “When I was under the water I told God: If you rescue me, I will never go back to the sea again, never.” And it is a promise, to our knowledge, that the young man has since kept, especially since he found a new job on land.
An aquanaut is any person who, through one way or the other, remains underwater for a certain amount of time. This person can be a scuba diver or a regular person who either lives or is able to operate inside or outside any structure that is underwater for more than 24 continuous hours.
These people breathe at ambient pressure under the water for an extended amount of time that allows the gas that they’re breathing to dissolve into their tissues, eventually reaching a state of equilibrium that scientists call saturation. Resurfacing has to be done in a decompression chamber, or else the diver could suffer major health issues. Okene became one of them, both accidentally and unintentionally because his vessel sank that fateful day.
Was Okene the First?
When Okene set about his day on May 26th, he never knew his journey on the sea would end with him becoming an accidental aquanaut. It is an honor that few men and women around the world hold, with much fewer being able to do it unintentionally or even because of a freak accident like what happened to this chef.
After two and a half days at almost 100 feet under the water, he made the cut. Upon his rescue, he underwent decompression and lost consciousness during the process. Despite vowing to never return to the ocean, he will forever be in the elite club known as the aquanauts.
The Incredible Rescue
Paul McDonald, one of the men who braved the wreckage to rescue the crew member on board the vessel Okene worked on said that it was one of the most amazing rescues he’s ever been part of. He also spoke about Okene post-rescue and said, “All on board could not believe how cool he was when being rescued.”
McDonald also believes that this particular mission is one he’d never forget. He had this to say about it, “The divers put a diving helmet and harness onto him. It was amazing to be part of this rescue.”