Like love, the word miracle gets used, overused, and misused. We say it out to describe, say, an amazing football moment like when in 1989, the Flying Eagles of Nigeria came from four goals down to defeat the then USSR during the FIFA U-21 World Cup in Saudi Arabia. We even have a name for it – The Dammam Miracle. But a genuine miracle produces something precious and rare. It raises goosebumps, inspires awe, and, most importantly, touches the heart. That connection with the heart marks the difference between that soccer feat and the story of a man who survived three days underwater. The tale of the harrowing experience of how Harrison Okene became an accidental aquanaut and survived a shipwreck for more than 60 hours at the bottom of the ocean by breathing through an air pocket.
Harrison Odjegba Okene knew he was surely going to die. The odds of surviving 60 hours at the bottom of the ocean are very low. The odds of being the only one left alive are infinitesimal. That is what it’s like to be the sole survivor. That is what it’s like to be an accidental aquanaut – defined as any person who remains underwater, breathing at the ambient pressure for long enough for the concentration of the inert components of the breathing gas dissolved in the body tissues to reach equilibrium, in a state known as saturation.
Harrison Okene story
On May 26, 2013, the 29-year-old Nigerian cook was working onboard a tugboat when it capsized in heavy seas. The 12-man crew was there to stabilise an oil tanker at a Chevron platform in the Atlantic Ocean about 32km off the coast of Nigeria. The ship – Jascon 4 – eventually settled, upside down, 30m down on the sea bed. Everyone drowned, except Harrison Okene.
“It was around 5 am and I was in the toilet when the vessel just started going down – the speed was so, so fast,” Okene said later.
“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).”
“Three guys were in front of me and suddenly water rushed in full force. I saw the first one, the second one, the third one just washed away. I knew these guys were dead.”
“I couldn’t see anything,” he said.
Trapped in the ocean
In the pitch dark, Harrison Okene had to grope his way into the engineer’s office 1.2 m (3 ft 11 in) in height that contained air sufficient to keep him alive. There, he fabricated a platform from a mattress and other materials which kept the upper part of his body above water that helped reduce heat loss.
They say that in a near-death experience, your life flashes before your eyes. For Okene, every thought he ever had, every feeling he ever felt, rushed in. The thought of all the people he had known, the experiences they have had, and the experiences he will never have. After two days trapped in cold water and breathing from an air bubble in an upturned tugboat under the ocean, no one can blame the cook for nurturing those thoughts.
“I was there in the water in total darkness just thinking it’s the end. I kept thinking the water was going to fill up the room but it did not,” Okene said, parts of his skin peeling away after days soaking in the saltwater.
“I was so hungry but mostly so, so thirsty. The saltwater took the skin off my tongue,” he said.
It took all his remaining willpower to put those thoughts and feelings aside and concentrate on the task at hand. As the hour passed, his resignation was replaced with a burning desire to survive. Then another thought came to mind, a prayer.
“Oh God, by your name, save me. … The Lord sustains my life,” Okene recited a psalm his wife had sent via SMS.
“All around me was just black and noisy. I was crying and calling on Jesus to rescue me, I prayed so hard. I was so hungry and thirsty and cold and I was just praying to see some kind of light.”
After almost two-and-a-half days with only a bottle of Coke to survive on, with no life vest and clothes on save for his boxers short, stuck in an air bubble a little more than a metre thick, alone, and partly immersed in cool water seemingly beyond help at the bottom of the ocean, Okene’s prayers were answered when he spotted a light.
A team of South African divers – Nicolaas van Heerden, Darryl Oosthuizen, and Andre Erasmus – employed to investigate the scene and recover the bodies, discovered Okene. The mission was organised to go look for the sunken Jackson 4 and not a rescue mission – it was looking for corpses. Who can blame the team for having such an assumption? Anyone on the Jackson 4 would have been killed by how much water they would swallow.
One of the divers came close to seeing him but all of a sudden, moved away from his sight. When the diver returned, Okene had to swim again to reach him, and still, he did not see him.
“So, I tapped him at the back of his neck, so he was afraid,” he said.
When the diver saw his hand, he said “corpse, corpse, a corpse”, into his microphone, reporting up to the rescue vessel.
“When he brought his hand close to me, I pulled on his hand,” Okene said.
“He’s alive! He’s alive! He’s alive!” Okene remembers hearing.
“I knew when he gave me water, he was observing me (to see) if I’m really human because he was afraid,” he said.
Images and video from his rescue show Okene reaching his hand out to show the rescue diver he is alive. The footage then pans to him in waist-deep water. The divers give Okene water and oxygen before equipping him with scuba gear and getting him to safety. The camera also caught the diver’s shocked reaction at seeing a man alive. It was as if he had seen a ghost.
An officer on that mission later wrote on his Facebook wall, “How it [Okene’s lungs] wasn’t full of water is anyone’s guess. I would say someone was looking after him.”
The rescuing divers fitted him with a diving helmet so he could breathe while being transferred into a closed diving bell and returned to the surface for decompression from saturation. Okene lost consciousness during the transfer. The then 29-year-old cook spent the following 48 hours in a decompression chamber.
When he was fit enough to interact with people and his surroundings, Okene was told he was the only survivor.
“They told me all the others had died and I cried because I thought I was the only one who had been trapped in the boat,” he said.
When recounting his experience at his 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, in disbelief.
Harrison Okene didn’t pay his last honour to his fallen colleagues as he failed to attend their funerals. He feared the reactions of their families.
“I couldn’t go because I didn’t know what the family would say, thinking ‘Why is he the only one to survive,’” he said.
“Every week I ask (God) ‘Why only me? Why did my colleagues have to die?’”
And the nightmare of May 26, 2013, lingers.
“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,’” his wife, Akpovona Okene, said.
While Okene was at the bottom of the ocean he made a pact with God.
“If you rescue me, I will never go back to the sea again, never.”
He reneged on his promise.
What is Harrison Okene doing now?
In 2015, Harrison Okene became a certified commercial diver. One of the rescue divers who discovered him at the bottom of the ocean presented him with his diploma.
Harrison Okene’s book
His book, Harrison Okene: Sixty hours underwater, by Virginia Loh-Hagan, released in 2019, should be read for an in-depth view of what transpired from May 26 to May 29, 2013. The book is written with a high-interest level and lower level of complexity to serve all manners of readers. With clear visuals, great photographs, and considerate text help with comprehension and wild facts, this book holds the readers’ interest from the first page to the last.
You can call it coincidence. You can term it divine intervention. Or wave it off as a really good day. Whatever way you define a miracle, Harrison Okene’s story should come to mind.