December 3, 2013

Man survives three days at bottom of Atlantic Ocean

The tugboat cook was trapped in an air pocket in the upended ship until rescued by divers.

The Associated Press

LAGOS, Nigeria – Entombed at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean in an upended tugboat for three days, Harrison Odjegba Okene begged God for a miracle.

click image to enlarge

Harrison Odjegba Okene looks in awe as a rescue diver surfaces into the air pocket that had kept Okene alive for nearly three days, as recorded by the diver’s headcam. Okene was working as a cook aboard a tugboat in the Atlantic Ocean off the Nigerian coast in June when a heavy swell caused the vessel to capsize and sink to the sea bed, where his 11 colleagues drowned. Okene was able to find an air pocket inside the sunken ship, where he survived for nearly three days before being found by a group of South African rescue divers. The video was made available Tuesday.

The Associated Press

The Nigerian cook survived by breathing an ever-dwindling supply of oxygen in an air pocket. A video of Okene's rescue in May that was posted on the Internet more than six months later has gone viral this week.

As the temperature dropped to freezing, Okene, dressed only in boxer shorts, recited the last psalm his wife had sent by text message, sometimes called the Prayer for Deliverance: "Oh God, by your name, save me. ... The Lord sustains my life."

To this day, Okene believes his rescue after 72 hours underwater at a depth of 30 meters (about 100 feet) is a sign of divine deliverance. The other 11 seaman aboard the Jascon 4 died.

Divers sent to the scene were looking only for bodies, according to Tony Walker, project manager for the Dutch company DCN Diving, who were called to the scene because they were working on a neighboring oil field 120 kilometers (75 miles) away.

The divers had already pulled up four bodies.

So when a hand appeared on the TV screen Walker was monitoring in the rescue boat, showing what the diver in the Jascon saw, everybody assumed it was another corpse.

"The diver acknowledged that he had seen the hand and then, when he went to grab the hand, the hand grabbed him!" Walker said in a telephone interview Tuesday.

"It was frightening for everybody," he said. "For the guy that was trapped because he didn't know what was happening. It was a shock for the diver while he was down there looking for bodies, and we (in the control room) shot back when the hand grabbed him on the screen."

On the video, there's an exclamation of fear and shock from Okene's rescuer, and then joy as the realization sets in. Okene recalls hearing: "There's a survivor! He's alive."

Walker said Okene couldn't have lasted much longer.

"He was incredibly lucky he was in an air pocket but he would have had a limited time (before) ... he wouldn't be able to breathe anymore."

The full video of the rescue captured by divers was released by DCN Diving after a request from The Associated Press. Initially, a shorter version of the rescue emerged on the Internet. The authenticity of the video was confirmed through conversations with DCN employees in the Netherlands. The video showing Okene was also consistent with additional photos of him on the rescue ship. The AP also contacted Okene on Tuesday who confirmed the events.

Okene's ordeal began around 4:30 a.m. on May 26. Always an early riser, he was in the toilet when the tug, one of three towing an oil tanker in Nigeria's oil-rich Delta waters, gave a sudden lurch and then keeled over.

"I was dazed and everywhere was dark as I was thrown from one end of the small cubicle to another," Okene said in an exclusive interview after his rescue with Nigeria's Nation newspaper.

He groped his way out of the toilet and tried to find a vent, propping doors open as he moved on. He discovered some tools and a life vest with two flashlights, which he stuffed into his shorts.

When he found a cabin of the sunken vessel that felt safe, he began the long wait, getting colder and colder as he played back a mental tape of his life — remembering his mother, friends, mostly the woman he'd married five years before with whom he hadn't yet fathered a child.

(Continued on page 2)

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