At 5am on the frigid, rain-swept morning of Sunday, May 26, 2013, the tugboat Jascon-4 bobbed through the black waters off the coast of Nigeria, dutifully carrying out a vital mission – to secure a massive, several-hundred-foot-long oil tanker ship packed to the brim with gasoline that had just been extracted from the nearby Chevron oil platform. Part of a $3 billion industry that extracts 238,000 gallons of crude from the ocean depths every year, the hulking tanker was being thrown about by massive ocean swells, crushing waves, and a relentless, battering rainstorm that had no end in sight, and the small, ultra-powerful Jascon-4 had been called in to fix a line to her and keep her from capsizing, releasing thousands of gallons of petroleum into the ocean, and watching helplessly in horror as mother nature proved that a thousand-ton ship packed with millions of dollars of fuel is no match for the full fury of the Earth herself.
Of course, it was just another morning in the life of 29 year old Harrison Okene, the Nigerian-born ship's cook aboard the Jascon-4. Okene went on missions like this all the time, knowing that dangerous situations, high seas, and the constant risk of being blown up in a gigantor painful gasoline explosion were all just part of the job description, and as long as his Pounded Yam Fufu recipe came out all right and the Captain didn't end up puking his guts out from food poisoning everything was going to be whatever the Nigerian version of Kosher is.
Just another day in the life.
Okene had just woken up, and he stabilized himself along the bulkheads as he headed for his morning trip to the John before getting ready to put on some breakfast for the other 11 crewmembers aboard the tug. Still in his underwear, the ship's cook was sleepy, probably a little seasick, and most likely just feeling the way most people feel when they have to get up at friggin' five AM on a Sunday to go to work, completely, blissfully unaware that he was about five minutes away from being abruptly thrown face-first into a horrific deathtrap so cruel and unusual that if a Dungeon Master threw it at his D&D party they'd all kick his ass on the spot.
You see, no sooner had Okene sat down on the can then a ridiculously-huge wave smashed HARD into the side of Jascon-4, spraying sheets of water across the rain-hammered deck, cracking a piece of the hull, and flipping the tug over on her side.
Honestly, of all the places to be when your ship flips upside down and begins to capsize and sink to the bottom of the ocean, sitting on the toilet at five in the morning has to be among the worst.
Okene, thrown so hard by the awesome crushing power of Poseidon's Fury that he flew all the way out of his bathroom stall in a scene that probably would have been hilarious to watch if it wasn't one of the most completely utterly terrifying things you can possibly imagine, jumped to his feet, pulled up his drawers (hopefully), and rushed out of the men's room. He entered a hallway in the bowels of the ship and instinctively began sprinting for the emergency hatch, where three of his crewmates were already preparing to seal off.
Before he got there, a torrential wall of rushing, freezing water came seemingly out of nowhere, slamming into the three men and carrying them off into the abyss. It was so gruesome to watch that Harrison Okene immediately knew that all three sailors were dead on impact.
But there was no time to think – Okene, trapped below decks with his only possible avenue of escape blocked by deadly rushing water, the Nigerian cook fought against the mighty current of water flooding into the passageway, muscling himself through another bulkhead into the ship's officer's cabins. The water continued to rush in, forcing Okene back into the bathroom that adjoined the Captain's room, hurling him up against the wall as the entire tugboat, continually pounded with waves and taking on unsustainable amounts of water, terrifyingly rolled upside down and began to slowly sink towards the bottom of the sea.
Only, somehow, Harrison Okene didn't drown. The ship's cook, swimming up towards the ceiling of the cabin (which had originally been the floor before the whole thing got turned upside-down), found himself somehow caught in a pitch-dark, four-foot bubble of breathable air. Hanging on to the base of the overturned sink, the cook held his head above water, breathing normally, sweating balls as he felt the Jascon-4 inexorably sink further and further in the depths of the Atlantic Ocean, finally coming to a rest on the ocean floor after what seemed like ages.
He was trapped.
Buried alive in a watery grave, Harrison Okene, ship's cook on the tugboat Jascon-4, was now stuck, in his underwear, in the total darkness of a tiny bubble of air, locked in an upside-down ship resting on the ocean floor, 100 feet below in the frozen depths of the Atlantic. Treading water or using his strength to hold his head above water, maintaining his breathing to preserve his oxygen, his entire mostly-naked body completely exposed to freezing-cold salt water, with no food, no light, no drinkable water, limited oxygen, and no hope of a timely rescue, Okene, the sole survivor of the crew, resigned himself to his fate, yet still stubbornly and resolutely refused to give up, for any reason, ever. He was going to ride this out, hold on, and fight for his life until the murky waters of the Atlantic or the excessive amounts of carbon dioxide finally asphyxiated him and laid him to rest with his crew.
Nigerian rescue crews received the mayday from the Jascon-4, but with the storm raging and the rapidity with which the vessel plummeted to the sea there was no chance of mounting a timely rescue operation. Even once the weather cleared later that day, there was still the relatively-noticeable problem that the ship was upside down – a major set of hazards for anyone brave enough to attempt swimming inside the vessel – and that it was, you know, like nine stories down underwater, and even highly-trained, professional SCUBA divers aren't recommended to remain at that depth (roughly 30 meters or 100 feet) for more than 20 minutes at a time. It's simply too dangerous, even for rescue swimmers.
Harrison Okene, a ship's cook in his boxer shorts, stayed down there for 60 hours.
Starving, freezing, with salt water peeling the skin off his tongue and body, his body pruning up like a raisin, holding on to an overturned washbasin, somehow kept his wits about him and refused to give up. Realizing he needed to get out of the water and rest, Okene used the last bit of his strength to make several trips holding his breath and swimming into the adjoining officer's cabin, where he felt around in the darkness, tried to avoid a host of dangerous things under there, and swam back carrying any kind of wooden objects he could feel around and locate. After a few trips like this, Okene was able to fashion some kind of small raft – it wasn't like Bear Grylls level of craftsmanship or anything, but it floated, and it was enough for him to get his body out of the water, attempt to warm up, and rest the screaming muscles in his arms and legs. As he lay there, reviewing the course of his life until this point, the only sounds that reached his ears were his own breath slowly killing him, the gentle lapping of water against the sides of the cabin, and the horrific sound of his dead crew members being eaten by fish and other unseen aquatic creatures.
He stayed there for the next three days.
Eventually, a team of South African rescue divers were brought in to check out the wreckage and salvage what they could. Swimming through the depths in full gear with underwater flashlights, the divers found the bodies of 10 crew members, then headed into the ship to investigate.
When Harrison Okene heard a metallic tapping coming from somewhere in the ship, he nearly crapped a brick.
Okene, knowing he was working on the last of his oxygen, leapt from his raft, dove down into the inky black waters, and ripped the faucet from the sink. Pulling himself back up, he began to slam the faucet against the ceiling as hard as he could, trying to call to the divers before they abandoned him to his fate once again, quietly hoping that by entering the ship these dudes didn't upset whatever delicate physics thing was going on here, flood his cabin with water, and trap him 30 meters underwater without any air.
Minutes later, he saw a flashlight head down the hallway. It was the first light he'd seen in three days.
Okene tapped the diver as he swam by, marginally concerned that the South African dude didn't freak the hell out , think he was being mauled by something from Deep Star Six or Leviathan, and shank the hell out of him with a jackknife or harpoon or something, but even though he startled the dude he nearly jumped out of his wet suit, Okene wasn't greeted with a stab to the gut.
Finally, at 7:30pm on May 28th – 62 hours after his boat flipped – Harrison Okene, exhausted, starving, and dangerously dehydrated, was equipped with a rebreather and oxygen tank. He used his last ounces of strength to swim out from the wreckage.
But his journey wasn't over yet – Okene had been down there so long, and had sucked so much Nitrogen into his lungs, that bringing him straight to the surface would have killed him immediately. Instead, he needed to spend the next 60 hours in a Decompression Chamber.
This is what the inside of a Decompression Chamber looks like:
Out of the frying pan...
Harrison Okene, having gone through a claustrophobic person's worst nightmare, was finally released to the hospital on June 1st, and only just was cleared to go home earlier this week.
His 62-hour ordeal, trapped in his underwear in a bathroom 100 feet below the ocean's surface, is believed to be the longest any human being has ever survived after being trapped underwater.
The Jascon-4 in better days.
Tugboat Sinks in Heavy Weather
Ten Dead After Boat Sinks at Chevron Nigeria Facility
Trapped in an Underwater Air Bubble for Three Days