How a Shipwreck Victim Who Nearly Drowned After 3 Days Underwater Now Braves the Depths of the Ocean as a Professional Diver
Rescued from near-certain death, Harrison Okene now finds peace and happiness in the deep sea.
How many nightmares can you cram into one situation before it seems so far-fetched that it’s hard to even imagine?
Would the threat of drowning, being trapped in a confined space, in absolute darkness, and the possibility of being eaten by sharks hit that mark?
That’s the exact nightmare situation a 29-year-old Nigerian man named Harrison Okene found himself starting in during the early morning hours of May 26, 2013.
“Starting” is important to stress here because Okene would end up spending close to three days nearly 100 feet below the surface of the ocean, trapped in a room in a sunken boat and with almost no hope of surviving.
The more you come to learn about Harrison Okene’s shocking ordeal, the more you will appreciate the resilience and will of this man — and when you learn what he ended up choosing as his career in the years after the harrowing days spent stuck in a sunken ship, you’ll only admire him all the more.
A Freak Wave and a Tragic Accident
Harrison Okene was a crewmember of a tugboat called the Jascon-4, per 9 News, which was at the time charged with helping tankers ferry fuel oil from offshore oil platforms operated by Chevron.
Okene and his fellow seamen had years of experience plying the waters of the Atlantic Ocean off the Nigerian coast, thus no one had any reason to suspect that late May day would prove a fateful one.
Almost everyone on the vessel was asleep that early morning when Okene arose and headed to the bathroom before beginning his shift working as the ship’s cook. It was then that a rogue wave smashed into the Jascon-4, capsizing the boat which immediately began to take on water and sink.
Thrown violently about but still able to gain his feet, Okene struggled to find a way to escape the sinking boat, but every door he encountered was locked: a standard procedure meant to keep the slumbering crew safe against pirates who may have attempted to raid the ship. But it also, unfortunately, prevented any chance of Okene getting out of the Jascon-4 before it sank all the way to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.
Okene found himself stuck in a corner of an officer’s cabin, relegated to a pocket of air that had been trapped in the room as the boat sank and then settled on the seafloor.
He had no idea then that his ordeal was far from over — in fact, it was just beginning.
60 Hours of Quiet Terror
As the Jascon-4 settled down onto the bottom of the ocean approximately 20 miles off the coast of Africa, Okene assumed all the other members of the 12-man crew must have escaped from the doomed ship. He would not learn for many days that, in fact, he would be the sole survivor.
His survival ordeal began that morning, but it would last for a ghastly 60 additional hours.
During that time, Okene went entirely without food or water. He was miserably cold. He was entirely in darkness. But he was not alone.
More than once during his nearly three days trapped underwater, Okene described hearing aquatic animals moving about in the boat and what he identified as, per 9 News, “the bite of fish,” which may well have been sharks feeding on the bodies of crewmen deceased in adjacent rooms.
With time a blur and his strength fading, Okene soon gave up much hope of making it out of the boat alive. He tried many times to free himself, following a rope through the dark, water-filled wreck, but every time he was forced to return to his little air pocket and simply wait for the end to come.
When it did, it was not in the form of death, but of rescue.
“He’s Alive! He’s Alive!” — A Miracle Under the Sea
Approximately 60 hours after the Jascon-4 had capsized and sank, South African rescue and recovery diver Nico van Heerden made his way into the ship. van Heerden and his fellow divers were not there as part of a rescue operation, mind you — they had been tasked by Chevron to recover the bodies of the men lost in the accident.
The moment van Heerden entered the space where Harrison Okene was trapped was one neither man will ever forget, and amazingly it’s one millions of others will long remember as well, because Nico van Heerden had a camera running at the time.
Watching the video of van Heerden finding Okene brings chills to the spine and a tear to the eye. From the murky depths before the diver’s mask, a hand slowly emerges. The voice of a man watching van Heerden’s video feed says via radio: “Alright, we found one,” meaning a body.
But then the hand closes around the diver’s glove, and in pure shock, van Heerden exclaims: “He’s alive! He’s alive!”
Gently holding Okene’s hand, van Heerden emerges from the water into the pocket of air and the camera finds Okene’s face at last. His expression is one blending complete exhaustion, disbelief, relief, and wonder.
Harrison slowly shakes his head from side to side, then settles back as if too overwhelmed even to sit upright. Overwhelmed, and short of air: it’s likely he would have succumbed to hypercapnia and died as a result of built-up CO2 within a mere matter of hours.
His life had been saved, but the ordeal was not over.
A slow trip up and a new path in life
Because Harrison Okene had been underwater for nearly three days, he had to be brought to the surface very slowly to reduce the risk of decompression sickness —— commonly known as the bends — and he was given a special mixture of oxygen and helium to breathe.
Despite being an inexperienced diver, Harrison did well as he donned scuba gear and was led from the boat and slowly helped to ascend to the surface. Above the water, Okene had to spend nearly three days in a decompression chamber, in which he was given plenty of food, water, and medication.
Finally free of the depths and released from the decompression chamber, Harrison Okene was reunited with his wife and the rest of his family.
Plagued by nightmares and traumatized by his experience, Okene at first vowed never to return to the sea. But then, over time, an amazing thing happened: rather than repelling him, the ocean was calling to him.
Inspired by the men who saved his life, Okene began to train as a diver himself. And just a few short years after nearly dying 90 feet below the surface of the sea, he was a diver rated to go down to 150 feet below it.
Today, Harrison Okene is an official IMCA (International Marine Contractors Association) Class II certified diver.
He is rated to work on and around the very oil rigs serviced by the ships he and his crew once tended to, to dive on wrecks, and, if ever needed, to participate in rescue efforts.