NIGERIA

Shipwreck

Nigerian tugboat cook survives three days in air bubble

Tugboat cook describes his amazing escape after 11 fellow crew members die in capsized tugboat

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 14 June, 2013, 3:48am

A Nigerian sailor who survived for almost three days 30m underwater by crouching in an air bubble after his tugboat sank has spoken about his ordeal.

Harrison Okene, a 29-year-old cook, was the sole survivor of the Jacson-4, which overturned after being battered by heavy swells last month. Eleven other crew members died as the vessel sank some 20 kilometres off Nigeria's mangrove-lined coast.

"It was around 5am and I was on the toilet when the vessel just started going down - the speed was so, so fast," Okene said from his hometown of Warri. Scrambling out, he was unable to reach an emergency exit hatch and watched in horror as three crew members were sucked into the churning sea.

The water swept him into another toilet as the boat sank 30 metres. Wearing only his underpants, Okene prayed as water seeped into the 1.2-metre air pocket in the cabin.

"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 had been underwater for almost 60 hours when he heard a hammering on the deck. A team of South African divers scouring the waters on a presumed body recovery operation were shocked to hear faint hammering in reply.

As a diver's light approached, Okene hesitated to swim outside the air pocket in case the startled diver might use a jack-knife on him. "I went to the water and touched the diver. He himself shivered from fear. So I stepped back and held my hand in the waters and waved it in front of his camera so they would see the images above deck."

"The diver walked in and at the back there was an air pocket he was sitting in," Paul MacDonald, an officer on the support vessel said. "How it wasn't full of water is anyone's guess. I'd say someone was looking after him."

There were worries Okene would panic during the rescue, while his body had absorbed potentially fatal amounts of nitrogen. "His heart wouldn't have been able to pump [back on land] because it was just so full of gas," said Christine Cridge, of the Diving Diseases Research Centre in Plymouth, England, who advised the rescue team.

Okene was manoeuvred to a diving bell which took him to the surface, where he spent two days in a decompression chamber.

"To survive that long at that depth is phenomenal. Normally you would dive recreationally for no more than 20 minutes at those depths," said a training consultant from the Professional Association of Diving Instructors.