Mr Okene, 29, has transformed his life since a diver fished him out of the sea. He never again wants to find himself in the galley of a ship, and works as a cook on dry land.
Mr Okene was the only survivor in a crew of 12 when the Jascon 4 capsized in May, and that haunts him. He stayed alive by breathing from a dwindling supply of oxygen in an air pocket of the tugboat. A video of his rescue in May was posted on the internet more than six months later and has since gone viral.
When recounting the rescue at his local parish, even the priest asked him if he had used black magic to survive. “I was so surprised! How could a man of God be saying this?” Mr Okene said this week at his modest two-bedroom flat in the southern oil-industry centre of Warri – his first interview since his ordeal.
He didn’t go to the funerals of his colleagues because he feared their families’ reactions – Nigerians are generally very religious, but also superstitious.
“I couldn’t go because I didn’t know what the family will say, thinking ‘why is he the only one to survive?”’ said Mr Okene. It’s a question that has shaken his faith. “Every week I ask [God] ‘why only me? Why did my colleagues have to die?”’
His rescuers from the Dutch company DCN Diving were looking only for bodies and had recovered four corpses when they came upon Mr Okene. The chubby-faced cook by that time had almost given up hope, but then he heard the sound of a boat, a hammering on the side of the vessel and then, after a while, saw lights and the rising waters around him bubbling.
He said he knew it had to be a diver, but he was at the wrong end of the cabin. “He came in but he was too fast, so I saw the light but before I could get to him, he was already out. I tried to follow him in the pitch darkness, but I couldn’t trace him, so I went back.”
When the diver returned, Mr Okene had to swim through the dark waters to reach him and still he did not see him. “I tapped him at the back of his neck, so he was afraid.” 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,” Mr Okene said. “He’s alive! He’s alive! He’s alive!” the diver shouted. Still, the diver appeared to have a hard time believing he had survived, Mr Okene said. “When he gave me water, he was observing me [to see] if I’m really human – because he was afraid.”
On the video, there are expletives and exclamations of fear and shock from Mr Okene’s rescuer, and then joy as the realisation set in that a survivor had been found. Until that moment, Mr Okene believed that his colleagues must have escaped. The tug was one of three towing a Chevron oil tanker in Nigeria’s oil-rich Delta waters, but on 26 May there was a sudden lurch and it keeled over.
Mr Okene was in the toilet. “I heard people shouting, I felt the vessel going down, going down … My colleagues were shouting ‘God help me, God help me, God help me’. Then, after a while, I never heard from them [again].”
His wife Akpovona Okene, 27, said he still suffers nightmares. “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’.”
Mr Okene said he made a pact with God when he was at the bottom of the ocean: “I told God: If you rescue me, I will never go back to the sea again, never.”