Usually waking up because you have to go to the bathroom is annoying. But on May 26, 2013, waking up and leaving his bunk to use the bathroom was a decision that saved 29 year old Harrison Odjegba Okene’s life. Through an odd twist of fate, Harrison ended up being the lone survivor of a boat sinking at sea. He can lay claim to a unique title– he’s the only known person in the world to have survived on the seafloor for nearly 3 days. The Gulf of Guinea in the southeast Atlantic Ocean is rich with petroleum laden layers of sedimentary seabed.
Many offshore oil rig drilling operations dot the African coast here. On May 26, about 20 miles (32 km) off of Escravos, Nigeria, in choppy seas three tugboats pitched and yawed as they performed tension tow functions on a Chevron oil tanker filling up at Single Buoy Mooring #3. Just before 5 am, the tugboat Jascon-4 was caught by a large rogue wave and capsized. Because of ongoing piracy problems in the Gulf, security protocol on the tugboat was that the 12 man crew would lock themselves in their rooms when sleeping. Unfortunately, this rule slowed down the Jascon-4’s crew when they tried to escape.
The crew members had to first scramble out of their cabins, that is except for the vessel’s cook Harrison, who had gotten up to use the bathroom in his underwear. When the tugboat keeled over and the ocean rushed in, Harrison had to force the bathroom’s metal door open against a wall of water. The pressure of the water was extremely strong and Harrison was unable to follow some of his colleagues to the emergency hatch. He watched in horror as a surge overwhelmed 3 crew members and swept them out of the boat into the raging sea. Then the water pushed Harrison down a narrow hallway into another bathroom which adjoined an officer’s cabin.
Dazed and bruised, but miraculously still alive, Harrison held on to an overturned washbasin to keep his head above water in the four foot square bathroom. The boat sank nearly 100 feet (30 meters), eventually coming to rest upside down on the seabed. When the tugboat capsized, there was an immediate rescue operation launched with other boats in the area and a helicopter. A diving crew quickly located the wreck and marked the location with buoys. They banged on the hull; Harrison hammered back, but they didn’t hear him. As the divers weren’t prepared for deep diving, they could only stay at the depth of the wreck for a limited period of time.
The rescue was called off due to no evidence of survivors. After nearly a day of being in the bathroom, Harrison got up the courage to leave his little air pocket. In pitch darkness, he swam and felt his way into the engineer’s office. Miraculously, there was another air pocket here too, of about 4 feet (1.2 meters) high in Harrison’s estimation. Having solved the immediate problem of having air to breathe, Harrison could focus on other concerns. The first one being that he was cold. In May, the surface temperature of the east Atlantic on average is a pleasant 81.9°F (27.7°C). But Harrison was 100 feet (30m) down.
Shivering, wet and wearing only boxer shorts, Harrison faced hypothermia, or his body losing heat faster than he could produce it. Cautiously Harrison felt his way around the cabin. He found some tools and used them to strip off wall paneling. With a mattress and the material from the wall, he was able to make a platform to sit on. This platform helped Harrison to stay afloat and lifted the upper half of his body out of the water, allowing him to reduce heat loss. Hungry, thirsty, cold and stuck in complete darkness, Harrison was terrified. He tried to think about his family. Quite religious, whenever he felt especially scared, Harrison would pray and call on Jesus to rescue him.
Over time the sea water began to remove the skin from Harrison’s tongue. He could smell something rotting–he thought it was the decomposing bodies of his former shipmates. Every small sound in the dark was magnified–the creaking of the hull, the banging of wreckage against the walls and most horrifically, splashing and eating noises as fishes nibbled at the corpses. Meanwhile, a dive support vessel, the Lewek Toucan arrived to the area of the sinking. The parent company of the Jascon-4, West African Ventures, had hired a deep sea salvage saturation diving team from subsea services company DCN Global to retrieve the bodies of the lost crew members.
The 6 divers, deck crew and technical staff of the Lewek Toucan knew it was going to be a grueling mission. Aside from the heartrending work of recovering the dead, the boat had sunk upside down into soft mud, stirring up fine silt and creating extremely poor visibility. Furthermore, because of security protocols the boat was latched from the inside. Dive team two consisted of Nico Van Heerden, Andre Erasmus and Darryl Oosthuizen with supervisor Colby Werrett topside on the ship, helping to guide the divers via a connected microphone while watching the dive through a camera worn by Nico. The team spent over an hour breaking through an external watertight door and then a second metal door to get into the sunken boat.
Once inside it was extremely disorienting with the ceiling being on the bottom and the floor overhead. The murky water was filled with all sorts of hazards including furniture and equipment. Slowly, painstakingly, the divers explored the boat. They had recovered four corpses when Nico crawled up the stairs to the main deck; it was a tight squeeze with the diving gear on his back. He was in a small passageway getting his bearings when something suddenly reached out of the murk and touched him… Harrison had nearly given up hope when he heard a noise that sounded like an anchor dropping. Then eventually he heard hammering on the hull of the boat.
He knew it had to be divers. He banged on the wall, but didn’t think they heard him. Then Harrison saw the light from one of the diver’s head torches as he swam through the hallway past the far end of the cabin. Unfortunately, the diver was too quick and left the area before Harrison could reach him. But then came the magical moment. You may have seen the surreal, amazing rescue footage from Nico’s video when he sees what he believes is another dead body. He touches the corpse’s hand and the hand unexpected squeezes his. Nico has a momentary freakout as his supervisor Colby shouts through the microphone “He’s alive, he’s alive!” Colby then tells Nico to comfort Harrison by patting him on the shoulder and giving him a thumbs up sign.
The divers were amazed to find Harrison alive. The maximum depth for recreational diving is 130 feet (40 meters). Generally, recreational divers don’t stay at 100 feet (30 meters) for more than 20 minutes. In terms of the air pocket, the divers had reached Harrison just in time. A human inhales roughly 350 cubic feet (10 cubic meters) of air every 24 hours. However, because the boat was under pressure on the ocean floor, scientists estimate that Harrison’s air pocket had been compressed by a factor of about four. If the pressurized air pocket were about 216 cubic feet (6 cubic meters), it would contain enough oxygen to keep Harrison alive for about two-and-a-half days.
When Harrison was located, he had been underwater for about 60 hours. An additional danger came from carbon dioxide or CO2 buildup. CO2 is fatal to humans at a concentration of about 5%. As Harrison breathed, he exhaled carbon dioxide, slowly increasing the levels of the gas in the tiny space. However, CO2 is absorbed by water, and by splashing the water inside his air pocket, Harrison inadvertently increased the water’s surface area, thereby heightening the absorption of CO2 and helping to keep the gas below the lethal 5% level. The divers describe Harrison as having CO2 poisoning, being short of breath and delirious when they found him–he wouldn’t have lasted much longer.
The divers first used hot water to warm Harrison up, then fitted him with an oxygen mask. Meanwhile, on the surface, the dive support crew was in contact with medical and diving experts, discussing how to best help the survivor. Harrison had a new problem, what divers commonly call ‘the bends’. The bends, also known as decompression sickness (DCS) or Caisson disease occurs when nitrogen bubbles form in the blood as a result of changes in pressure. If Harrison ascended directly from 100 feet (30 meters) underwater to the surface of the ocean, the bubbles in his blood would cause in the best case joint pain and rashes to in the worst case paralysis, neurological issues, cardiac arrest or possibly even death.
It was decided that Harrison would be treated as if he was one of the saturation divers coming up after a dive. Harrison spent about 20 minutes getting used to breathing through the mask. Then the divers put a diving helmet and harness onto him. They were a little worried that he would panic as they got him out of the boat and be a danger to the dive, but Harrison continued to be cool under pressure. The team was impressed with his level demeanor. Harrison was taken from the boat and led to a diving bell which took him to the surface.,He finally arrived topside around at 7pm on Tuesday, the 28th of May.
Disoriented, Harrison thought that it was Sunday evening and he had only been trapped for 12 hours. He was shocked to learn that he had been underwater for over 2 days. From the diving bell, Harrison was moved to a decompression chamber where he stayed for another 2 and ½ days while his body decompressed to surface pressure. Of the 12 crew members onboard the tugboat Jascon-4 , divers rescued 1 survivor and recovered 10 bodies. The search for the 11 crew member had to be called off due to dangerous conditions. Harrison made a full recovery from his ordeal and returned to his hometown of Warri, Nigeria.
He didn’t go to the funerals of his colleagues because he feared their families’ reactions–Nigerians can be very religious, but are also superstitious. Some rumors spread that Harrison saved himself through black magic. Harrison was also plagued with survivor’s guilt, wondering why he was the only one to live. Since the incident Harrison’s experienced PTSD. His wife Akpovona Okene says he suffers nightmares–Harrison will suddenly awake, screaming and flailing convinced that he’s underwater. Harrison has since taken a cooking job on dry land and vows to never again take a position on a boat. He made a pact with God when he was at the bottom of the ocean: “When I was under the water I told God: If you rescue me, I will never go back to the sea again, never.” Do you think you could survive underwater for 3 days like Harrison did? What would you think about to keep your spirits up? Let us know in the comments!
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