The man who survived two-and-a-half days trapped on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean
Driving rain and crushing waves swept over the Jascon-4 as the tugboat navigated through turbulent black waters around 30 kilometres off the coast of Nigeria.
Its mission: to secure a large oil tanker loaded with gasoline from the nearby Chevron oil platform.
The 12-man crew didn’t know it then but the small boat was sailing to its doom.
For Harrison Okene, the boat’s cook, the date of May 26, 2013, is one he will never forget; it marks the start of his ordeal trapped 30 metres below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean.
Okene told 9news.com.au he had just woken up and was on the toilet when disaster struck.
A towering wave smashed into the side of the boat just before 5am, causing it to capsize.
Water started to pour into the vessel, filling the cabins and winding passageways.
“Before we knew, we were sinking,” Okene said.
“It was very bad weather.
“We had been sailing for many years, we knew the sea, we had never had any issue before.”
Okene pulled up his boxers and started to tear through the ship, but escape was made difficult by the fact all but a couple of doors had been locked in a bid to deter potential attacks from pirates.
He sought refuge in the ship’s officer’s cabins.
There, a wall of water forced him into the room’s adjoining toilet.
Something akin to a miracle occurred as the boat settled in its watery grave.
An air pocket formed, giving the then 29-year-old precious oxygen to breathe.
“Underwater it was so, so, so, cold,” he said, explaining he tried to find a way out several times, tracing his way back to the air pocket with a rope he had found.
“I was struggling to stay alive, wondering how long it (the air pocket) would last me.
“I was thinking about my family, my wife, what would happen, how would she live, how can I get out, thinking about my life as well.
“I was praying a lot.”
Hours ticked by as Okene sat in the pitch black, wedged up against a wall.
At one point he heard a sound that terrified him.
It was the “bite of fish” eating something in the vessel.
“I never knew if they were sharks or not, it was so dark,” he said.
“I heard them biting something.
“I was scared, I had to stay and keep watch to see if something would come in my direction.”
And so Okene waited and he watched in the dark and cold.
After 60 hours, he heard more knocking.
Then he saw something he had given up hope of ever seeing – light had pierced through the black water.
The ‘long and difficult’ rescue
That light belonged to the torch of South African diver, Nico van Heerden.
He and a crew from DCN, a global diving company, had been sent by Chevron and West African Ventures to retrieve the bodies of the crew.
In total, ten bodies were recovered – the 11th was never found.
Very gently, Okene reached out to van Heerden and tapped his gear, careful not to startle him.
“When he came I was just crying,” Okene said.
“He never knew what I was thinking.
“I was not afraid at that time. I had already decided if it’s to be alive or dead, no problem.
“I had been ready to go (but) God heard my prayers.”
Alex Gibbs, a life support technician on duty on the surface, remembers the moment their recovery mission turned into a “long and difficult” rescue.
“I was shocked and then a bit excited,” Gibbs told 9news.com.au.
“It was certainly unexpected, especially after nearly three days and seeing all the bodies coming up.
“Nobody thought there was anyone alive.
“(But) there were a lot of concerns.”
The diving bell, decompression chamber and a first-time diver
Even though Okene had been discovered, his ordeal was far from over.
Due to the time he had spent at depth, he needed to do lengthy decompression stops to avoid decompression sickness – also known as the bends – when nitrogen bubbles form within the body’s tissues and bloodstream.
Okene had also never dived before, and there was another medical complication unfolding.
“He was close to dying when we found him,” Gibbs said, explaining Okene was in the first stages of hypercapnia.
“Contrary to popular belief, when people are trapped in confined spaces it is not the oxygen running out that will kill you, it is your own exhaled breath causing a build-up of CO2.
“By the time he had been found, this was at a clearly high level.
“You can see him panting in the video and his slightly glazed eyes caused by this.
“We immediately put down an air hose and literally blew fresh air over him (but) another concern was he had been saturated by air so we now had to switch him onto an oxygen and helium mix, which is not standard practice.”
Despite being exhausted and overwhelmed, Okene somehow proved a natural diver.
At the surface he was transferred to a diving bell, under pressure, then locked inside a decompression chamber, where Gibbs tended to him for days.
“I looked after him the entire three days before he was decompressed and out,” Gibbs said.
“I delivered his food, changed his bed linen, gave him medicine and acted as the go-between from him to doctors, managers and shoreside office.
“He was constantly monitored.
“It must have been a huge shock and bewildering experience for him.”
Nine years on, Gibbs said he has never experienced a rescue like Okene’s.
“Not one where someone has had to be transferred into a diving bell,” he said.
“It is a freak occurrence.
“The fact he lived, he found an air pocket, it held for nearly three days, we happened to be in an area with a deep sea diving boat.
“So many coincidences had to happen to make this possible.”