After two days trapped in freezing seawater and breathing from an air bubble in an upturned tugboat, Harrison Okene was sure he was about to die. Then torchlight pierced the darkness.
Mr Okene, 29, the boat’s cook, was on board the Jascon-4 tug when it capsized in heavy seas, 20 miles off the coast of Nigeria. There were 12 people on board; divers recovered ten bodies, but a remaining crew member has not been found.
Mr Okene alone survived, breathing inside a 4ft bubble as it dwindled in the waters slowly rising from the ceiling of the tiny toilet and adjoining bedroom where he had sought refuge, until two South African divers eventually rescued him.
“I was there in the water, in total darkness, just thinking it’s the end,” Mr Okene said, parts of his skin peeling away after days soaking in the salt water.
“I was hungry, but mostly so, so thirsty. The salt water took the skin off my tongue,” he said.
He had nothing to eat or drink throughout his ordeal.
The tug was stabilising an oil tanker filling up at a Chevron platform on 26 May when it sank. Mr Okene says he was in the toilet at 4:50am when he realised the tugboat was beginning to turn over.
“As I was coming out of the toilet it was pitch black, so we were trying to link our way out to the water tidal [exit hatch],” Mr Okene said in his home town of Warri, a city in Nigeria’s oil-producing Niger Delta.
“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.”
What he did not know was that he would spend the next two and a half days trapped under the sea, praying he would be found.
Mr Okene was swept along a narrow passageway by the surging water into another toilet, this time adjoining a ship’s officers cabin, as the overturned boat crashed on to the ocean floor. To his amazement, he found he was still breathing.
Mr Okene, wearing only his underpants, survived about a day in the toilet, holding on to the upturned hand basin to keep his head out of the water.
He summoned the courage to open the door and swim into the officer’s bedroom, and began pulling off the wall panelling to create a tiny raft to lift himself out of the freezing water.
He sensed he was not alone in the darkness.
“I was very, very cold and it was black. I couldn’t see anything,” he said. “But I could perceive the dead bodies of my crew were nearby. I could smell them. The fish came in and began eating the bodies. I could hear the sound. It was horror.”
What Mr Okene did not know was a team of divers sent by Chevron and the ship’s owners, West African Ventures, were searching for crew members, assumed by now to be dead. Then, in the afternoon of 28 May, Mr Okene heard them.
“I heard a sound of a hammer hitting the vessel. Boom, boom, boom. I swam down and hammered the side of the vessel hoping someone would hear me. ”
Divers broke into the ship and Mr Okene saw light from the head-torch of someone swimming along the passage.
“I went into the water and tapped him. I was waving my hands and he was shocked,” Mr Okene said, his relief still visible.
He thought he was at the bottom of the sea, although the company says the boat was 30 metres below the surface.
The diving team fitted Mr Okene with an oxygen mask, diver’s suit and helmet, and he surfaced at 7:32pm, more than 60 hours after the ship sank, he said. Mr Okene spent another 60 hours in a decompression chamber. Had he been exposed immediately to the outside air, he would have died.
The cook says memories of his time in the watery darkness still haunt him and he is not sure he will return to the sea.
“I don’t know what stopped the water from filling that room. I was calling on God. He did it. It was a miracle.”