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The man who survived for 3 days at the bottom of the Atlantic in a sunken ship

PortandTerminal.com, June 19, 2020

A Nigerian cook who survived three days in shipwreck still has nightmares and vows to never return to sea 

LAGOS, NIGERIA – Next to being buried alive, being trapped in a sunken ship must be near the top of the list for worst ways to die. This is the story of a Nigerian ships cook named Harrison Odjegba Okene who was trapped in a sunken ship, 100 feet below the surface, for three days and lived to tell the tale.

What happened?

Okene’s ordeal began around 4:30 a.m. on May 26, 2013.

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.

My colleagues were shouting ‘God help me, God help me, God help me.’ Then after a while, I never heard from them (again).”

“I heard people shouting, I felt the vessel going down, going down, I heard a voice saying ‘Is this vessel sinking or what?’ … I was in the WC (toilet) and the WC fell on my head, things started falling on my head … My colleagues were shouting ‘God help me, God help me, God help me.’ Then after a while I never heard from them (again).”

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.

He worried about his colleagues — 10 Nigerians and the Ukrainian captain including four young cadets from Nigeria’s Maritime Academy. They would have locked themselves into their cabins, standard procedure in an area stalked by pirates.

He got really worried when he heard the sound of fish, shark or barracudas he supposed, eating and fighting over something big.

As the waters rose, he made a rack on top of a platform and piled two mattresses on top.

According to his interview with the Nation: “I started calling on the name of God. … I started reminiscing on the verses I read before I slept. I read the Bible from Psalm 54 to 92. My wife had sent me the verses to read that night when she called me before I went to bed.”

Losing hope

Okene survived in a small air pocket as shown in this artist's drawing
Okene survived in a small air pocket as shown in this artist’s drawing

Entombed at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean in an upended tugboat for three days, Harrison Odjegba Okene begged God for a miracle. The Nigerian cook survived by breathing an ever-dwindling supply of oxygen in an air pocket.

He survived off just one bottle of Coke, all he had to sustain him during the trauma.

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.”

Miracle rescue

Harrison Odjegba Okene, second left, poses inside a decompression chamber with members of the diving team who saved his life after being trapped for three days under water. (DCN Diving/Associated Press)
Harrison Odjegba Okene, second left, poses inside a decompression chamber with members of the diving team who saved his life after being trapped for three days underwater. (DCN Diving/Associated Press)

Okene really thought he was going to die, he told the Nation, when he heard the sound of a boat engine and anchor dropping, but failed to get the attention of rescuers. He figured, given the size of the boat, that it would take a miracle for a diver to locate him. So he waded across the cabin, stripped the wall down to its steel body, then knocked on it with a hammer.

But “I heard them moving away. They were far away from where I was.”

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.

Screen shot of Okene's hand appearing in the murky water as the divers looked for bodies
Screen shot of Okene’s hand appearing in the murky water as the divers looked for 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 divers had already pulled up four bodies.

“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.

When the diver saw his hand he said “corpse, corpse, a corpse,” into his microphone, reporting up to the rescue vessel.

“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.”

After being warmed up with hot water Okene was attached to an oxygen mask and freed from the wreck. After spending some time in a decompression chamber he was eventually brought to the surface.

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.”

Nightmares

Okene (pictured with his wife, Akpovona Okene)
Okene pictured with his wife, Akpovona Okene

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.

By the time he was saved, relatives already had been told the sailors were dead.

Later when recounting the rescue at his local church, the pastor asked him if he had used black magic to survive. “I was so surprised! How could a man of God be saying this?” Okene said, his voice rising in disbelief.

He didn’t go to the funerals of his colleagues because he feared their families’ reactions — Nigerians being generally very religious but also superstitious.

“I couldn’t go because I didn’t know what the family will say, thinking ‘Why is he the only one to survive,”‘ said Okene.

It’s a question that has shaken his steadfast faith. “Every week I ask (God) ‘Why only me? Why did my colleagues have to die?”‘

His wife Akpovona Okene, 27, said he still suffers nightmares. “When he is sleeping, he has that shock, he will just wake up in the night saying ‘Honey see, the bed is sinking, we are in the sea.”

Okene said 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.”

With content from the Associated Press (AP)

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