SA divers save man from horror fate

2013-06-12 17:42

Warri - After two days trapped in freezing cold water and breathing from an air bubble in an upturned tugboat under the ocean, Harrison Okene was sure he was going to die. Then a torch light pierced the darkness.

Ship's cook Okene, 29, was on board the Jascon-4 tugboat when it capsized on 26 May due to heavy Atlantic ocean swells around 30km off the coast of Nigeria, while stabilising an oil tanker filling up at a Chevron platform.

Of the 12 people on board, divers recovered 10 dead bodies while a remaining crew member has not been found.

Somehow Okene survived, breathing inside a 1.2m- high bubble of air as it shrunk in the waters slowly rising from the ceiling of the tiny toilet and adjoining bedroom where he sought refuge, until two South African divers eventually rescued him.

"I was there in the water in total darkness just thinking it's the end. I kept thinking the water was going to fill up the room but it did not," Okene said, parts of his skin peeling away after days soaking in the salt water.

"I was so hungry but mostly so, so thirsty. The salt water took the skin off my tongue," he said. Seawater got into his mouth, but he had nothing to eat or drink throughout his ordeal.

At 04:50 on 26 May, Okene says he was in the toilet when he realised the tugboat was beginning to turn over. As water rushed in and the Jascon-4 flipped, he forced open the metal door.

"As I was coming out of the toilet it was pitch black so we were trying to link our way out to the water tidal [exit hatch]," Okene told Reuters in his home town of Warri, a city in Nigeria's oil-producing Niger Delta.

"Three guys were in front of me and suddenly water rushed in full force. I saw the first one, the second one, the third one just washed away. I knew these guys were dead."

Smell bodies

What he didn't know was that he would spend the next two and a half days trapped under the sea praying he would be found.

Turning away from his only exit, Okene was swept along a narrow passageway by surging water into another toilet, this time adjoining a ship's officers cabin, as the overturned boat crashed onto the ocean floor. To his amazement he was still breathing.

Okene, wearing only his underpants, survived around a day in the .37m² toilet, holding onto the overturned washbasin to keep his head out of the water.

He built up the courage to open the door and swim into the officer's bedroom and began pulling off the wall panelling to use as a tiny raft to lift himself out of the freezing water.

He sensed he was not alone in the darkness.

"I was very, very cold and it was black. I couldn't see anything," says Okene, staring into the middle distance.

"But 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 horror."

What Okene didn't know was a team of divers sent by Chevron and the ship's owners, West African Ventures, were searching for crew, assumed by now to be dead.

Then in the afternoon of 28 May, Okene heard them.

Boom, boom, boom

"I heard a sound of a hammer hitting the vessel. Boom, boom, boom. I swam down and found a water dispenser. I pulled the water filter and I hammered the side of the vessel hoping someone would hear me. Then the diver must have heard a sound."

Divers broke into the ship and Okene saw light from a head torch of someone swimming along the passageway past the room.

"I went into the water and tapped him. I was waving my hands and he was shocked," Okene said, his relief still visible.

He thought he was at the bottom of the sea, although the company says it was 30m below.

The diving team fitted Okene with an oxygen mask, diver's suit and helmet and he reached the surface at 19:32, more than 60 hours after the ship sank, he says.

Okene says he spent another 60 hours in a decompression chamber where his body pressure was returned to normal. Had he just been exposed immediately to the outside air he would have died.

The cook describes his extraordinary survival story as a "miracle" but the memories of his time in the watery darkness still haunt him and he is not sure he will return to the sea.

"When I am at home sometimes it feels like the bed I am sleeping in is sinking. I think I'm still in the sea again. I jump up and I scream," Okene said, shaking his head.

"I don't know what stopped the water from filling that room. I was calling on God. He did it. It was a miracle."

  • Nick - 2013-06-12 18:46

    Amazing story!

      James Blacksmith - 2013-06-12 23:26

      Indeed. 30m under water, probably the only safe place within miles!

      Daryl Van Sittert - 2013-06-13 10:18

      Yes. Its lovely to read a story about people helping one another and a happy ending (well for the one guy) at the end.

  • Zeepolar - 2013-06-12 18:59

    why does this article have so few comments?? i guess news24 readers only comment on articles which allow em to do some ANC/ SA bashing. Am glad he survived. it truly is a miracle. :-)

      Linds Ron-House - 2013-06-12 19:19

      I agree.

      Sipho Mathabula - 2013-06-12 20:09

      Linds you only comment on something negative about the ANC, so you are no better.

      Sipho Mathabula - 2013-06-12 20:10

      Secondly good news does not sell, only bad news, we as humans are only to happy to see others suffering.

      Sipho Mathabula - 2013-06-12 20:12

      Thirdly Zeepolar you commented only 1 hour after it was posted, and it is now night time all the office worker trolls who surf the web on the bosses account are not wekking now.

      Regte Boer - 2013-06-13 07:32

      You are the one trying to draw negative comments with your stupid comment.

      ITChick - 2013-06-13 18:52

      Christo, hehe. For some reason I read that in a Moss from IT crowd voice. Zeepolar. What a happy, miraculous story. 10/12 people die after a boat capsized.

  • belnick - 2013-06-12 19:02

    Truley a miracle.Prayers are very very powerful.Believe and trust!

      littlelearner - 2013-06-13 15:46

      What about the other 10 crew members who were also praying when they drowned? Prayers are not effective at all it has been proved countless times in scientific studies! If your god was so caring why did he let the tug capsize in the first place?

      Donald Alexander Elder - 2013-06-18 04:02

      @Littlelearner. Boring

  • Abrie Burger - 2013-06-12 19:05

    Well done guys!!! You make us proud.

  • Erika Nortier - 2013-06-12 19:22

    Wonderful to read. He is such a lucky man. A new appreciation for life and all the things that we take for granted. Very happy for him.

  • Angie Franke - 2013-06-12 22:44

    absolutely incredible story - so good to read something like this. Wow... your life takes on a whole new meaning Mr Okene. May the nightmares lessen as you grieve and rejoice. Such extremes to deal with.

  • Jane Longmuir - 2013-06-12 23:05

    They were discussing it on Goodhope FM last week. Totally amazing.....very lucky guy. His guardian angel was obviously watching over him!

  • Sue Impey - 2013-06-13 04:36

    Brings tear to my eyes, Okene you are an amazing man, your strength and resilience is astounding, to the divers that saved you, thank you, to the families that lost their love ones, our heartfelt sympathies. When we are in difficulties, or in trouble, strength of character will shine through in those in trouble and in those that rescue. Well done!

  • Hendrik Groenewald - 2013-06-13 07:25

    God has big plans for this man.

  • Regte Boer - 2013-06-13 07:31

    He should rename himself to Lucky. The outcome of this event had a very small probability. If I was in his shoes I would find a land based job...

  • Hoffie Rautenbach - 2013-06-13 07:52

    What a miracle............after that experience you will know that there is a God.

  • Nasiefa Jackson Lazarus - 2013-06-13 08:02

    WOW !

  • Sisie Indola - 2013-06-13 08:17

    Wow that is amazing

  • Megs Houston - 2013-06-13 08:20

    This is an amazing story and what makes it even better is that one of my good friends is one of the guys who helped save this man's life!!!!

  • Priscilla Otto - 2013-06-13 08:23

    If its not your time its your time. Gods will

  • Liz Rudy - 2013-06-13 09:12

    Miracles do happen

  • Sazi Radebe - 2013-06-13 10:53

    Qualifies for "I shouldn't be Alive"

  • Hemlock - 2013-06-13 11:38

    Amazing.....very happy to read that this man survived the horrific ordeal. Well done to his rescuers.

  • Cindy Naude - 2013-06-13 11:58


  • Kevin Gleeson - 2013-06-13 13:08

    Absolute miracle, what a story, welcome back, no wahala from now forward.

  • Martin Foster - 2013-06-13 13:28

    Wow! wonderful story! I would really like to know more about the SA divers. the incident occurred 30 km off coast of Nigeria! How were the divers summoned to the tug boat etc?

  • Pierre Van Der Walt - 2013-06-13 13:30

    A good theme for a movie.

  • mack.myburgh - 2013-06-13 14:59

    wow !

  • JournoSergio - 2013-06-13 16:11

    I couldn't imagine a greater horror than being trapped in the hull of a sunken boat with dead crew all around me and the thought of never escaping. A miracle that Okene made it out.

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