At 5am on Sunday, May 26, 2013, the tugboat Jascon-4 bobbed through the black waters off the coast of Nigeria, carrying out a vital mission – to secure a massive, several-hundred-foot-long oil tanker ship packed to the brim with gasoline that had just been extracted from the nearby Chevron oil platform. The hulking tanker was being thrown about by massive ocean swells, crushing waves, and a relentless, battering rainstorm. The small, ultra-powerful Jascon-4 had been called in to fix a line to her and keep her from capsizing.
It was just another morning in the life of 29 year old Harrison Okene, the Nigerian-born ship's cook aboard the Jascon-4. Okene went on missions like this all the time, knowing that dangerous situations, high seas, and the constant risk of being blown up in a gasoline explosion were all just part of the job description.
Okene had just woken up, and he stabilized himself along the bulkheads as he headed for his morning trip to the John before getting ready to put on some breakfast for the other eleven crew members aboard the tug. Still in his underwear, the ship's cook was sleepy, probably a little seasick.
No sooner had Okene sat down on the can then a ridiculously-huge wave smashed HARD into the side of Jascon-4, spraying sheets of water across the rain-hammered deck, cracking a piece of the hull, and flipping the tug over on her side.
Okene flew all the way out of his bathroom stall and rushed out of the men's room. He entered a hallway in the bowels of the ship and instinctively began sprinting for the emergency hatch, which three of his crewmates were already preparing to seal off.
Before he got there, a wall of rushing, freezing water came out of nowhere, slamming into the three men and carrying them off.
Okene, trapped below decks with his only possible avenue of escape blocked by deadly rushing water, fought against the current flooding into the passageway, muscling himself through another bulkhead into the ship's officer's cabins. The water continued to rush in, forcing Okene back into the bathroom that adjoined the Captain's room, hurling him up against the wall as the entire tugboat, continually pounded with waves and taking on unsustainable amounts of water, rolled upside down and began to slowly sink towards the bottom of the sea.
Somehow, Harrison Okene didn't drown. The ship's cook, swimming up towards the floor of the cabin, found himself caught in a pitch-dark, four-foot bubble of breathable air. Hanging on to the base of the overturned sink, the cook held his head above water, as he felt the Jascon-4 sink further and further in the depths of the Atlantic Ocean, finally coming to a rest on the ocean floor.
Okene was now stuck, in his underwear, in the total darkness of a tiny bubble of air, locked in an upside-down ship resting on the ocean floor, 100 feet below in the frozen depths of the Atlantic. Treading water or using his strength to hold his head above water, maintaining his breathing to preserve his oxygen, his entire mostly-naked body completely exposed to freezing-cold salt water, with no food, no light, no drinkable water, limited oxygen, and no hope of a timely rescue, Okene resigned himself to his fate, yet still stubbornly and resolutely refused to give up, for any reason, ever. He was going to ride this out, hold on, and fight for his life until the murky waters of the Atlantic or the excessive amounts of carbon dioxide finally asphyxiated him and laid him to rest with his crew.
Nigerian rescue crews received the mayday from the Jascon-4, but with the storm raging and the rapidity with which the vessel plummeted to the sea there was no chance of mounting a timely rescue operation. Even when the weather cleared later that day, the ship was upside down, nine stories down underwater. Even highly-trained, professional SCUBA divers aren't recommended to remain at that depth for more than 20 minutes at a time.
Realizing he needed to get out of the water and rest, Okene used the last bit of his strength to make several trips holding his breath and swimming into the adjoining officer's cabin, where he felt around in the darkness, tried to avoid a host of dangerous things, and swam back carrying any kind of wooden objects he could locate by feel. After a few trips like this, Okene was able to fashion a kind of small raft. It was enough for him to get his body out of the water, attempt to warm up, and rest the screaming muscles in his arms and legs. As he lay there, reviewing the course of his life until this point, the only sounds that reached his ears were his own breath slowly killing him, the gentle lapping of water against the sides of the cabin, and the horrific sound of his dead crew members being eaten by fish and other unseen aquatic creatures.
"I was very, very cold and it was black. I couldn't see anything," says Okene. "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."
Eventually, a team of South African rescue divers were brought in to check out the wreckage and salvage what they could. Swimming through the depths in full gear with underwater flashlights, the divers found the bodies of 10 crew members, then headed into the ship to investigate.
Okene, knowing he was working on the last of his oxygen, leapt from his raft, dove down into the inky black waters, and ripped the faucet from the sink. Pulling himself back up, he began to slam the faucet against the ceiling as hard as he could, trying to call to the divers before they abandoned him to his fate once again.
"I heard a sound of a hammer hitting the vessel," said Okene. "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."
Minutes later, he saw a flashlight head down the hallway. It was the first light he'd seen in three days.
"I went into the water and tapped him," said Okene. "I was waving my hands and he was shocked."
Finally, at 7:30pm on May 28th – 62 hours after his boat flipped – Harrison Okene, exhausted, starving, and dangerously dehydrated, was equipped with a rebreather and oxygen tank. He used his last ounces of strength to swim out from the wreckage.
But his journey wasn't over yet – Okene had been down there so long, and had sucked so much Nitrogen into his lungs, that bringing him straight to the surface would have killed him immediately. Instead, he needed to spend the next 60 hours in a Decompression Chamber.
His 62-hour ordeal, trapped in his underwear in a bathroom 100 feet below the ocean's surface, is believed to be the longest any human being has ever survived after being trapped underwater.
“When I am at home sometimes it feels like the bed I am sleeping in is sinking," sid Okene. "I think I’m still in the sea again. I jump up and I scream."
"I don’t know what stopped the water from filling that room. I was calling on God. He did it. It was a miracle.”
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