In 2013, Harrison Okene became an accidental aquanaut when he survived more than 60 hours at the bottom of the ocean by breathing through an air pocket.
In 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 stabilize an oil tanker at a platform in the Atlantic Ocean. They were about 32km off the Nigerian coast at the time of the incident.
The ship eventually settled 30m down on the sea bed, upside down. Everyone drowned, except Okene.
“It was around 5 am and I was on the toilet when the vessel just started going down –- the speed was so, so fast,” Okene said later.
In pitch dark, he managed to grope his way from the toilet into another room, which had enough air to keep him alive. There, he rigged a simple platform to keep his body partially above water and delay hypothermia.
There in the dark, as the horror of his predicament began to sink in, Okene could do little but pray. “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.”
He was wearing just his underpants, stuck in an air bubble a little more than a metre thick, alone, and partly immersed in cool water.
After almost two-and-a-half days, 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 had come to inspect the vessel and retrieve the bodies. Okene gently reached his hand out to touch a diver’s arm. So as not to spook him, Okene then withdrew his arm and waved. A recovery camera caught the diver’s shocked reaction at seeing a man alive. It was as if he’d seen a ghost. The moment comes at :50 in the video below
“How it wasn’t full of water is anyone’s guess,” said one of the rescue team. “I would say someone was looking after him.”
The next challenge was getting Okene safely to the surface. After such a long time at depth, Okene had absorbed potentially fatal amounts of nitrogen. Bringing him suddenly to the surface would induce a deadly attack of the bends. The team needed to skillfully readjust the gas levels in Okene’s body.
They suited Okene with a diving helmet and guided him to a diving bell, designed to maintain internal pressure. Okene lost consciousness during the transfer but managed to survive. The bell then brought him safely to the surface, where he spent two days in a decompression chamber. He suffered from peeling skin, recurring nightmares, and insatiable hunger, but was otherwise in good health.
Okene had assumed that all the other 11 crew made it safely to the surface when the boat went down, while he alone sank to the bottom. It wasn’t until later that he learned that he was the sole survivor. All the bodies of his companions were recovered except one, who was never found.
Although Okene swore never again to go near the ocean, he became a certified commercial diver in 2015. The rescue diver who discovered him at the bottom of the ocean presented him with his diploma.