Surviving Three Days Underwater: Harrison Okene’s Story

Working on a boat has many pros and cons, but it can be dangerous because the ocean is more powerful than most people can comprehend. In 2013, Nigerian cook Harrison Okene was working on a tugboat off the coast of Nigeria. Okene and the 12-man crew were there to stabilize an oil tanker.

Alex Gibbs, Harrison Okene / Harrison Okene / Harrison Okene’s hand / Harrison Okene.
Source: YouTube

The waters were rough, and the tugboat was being thrown around by ocean swells. Okene was used to life on a boat, but he never could have imagined what happened when his boat capsized. For 60 hours, Okene survived in a small air pocket 30m underwater. His story of survival is inspiring and miraculous.

An Important Mission

On May 26, 2013, stormy weather caused rough waters off the coast of Nigeria. The tugboat Jascon-4 rocked on the dark water as it carried out an important mission. The 12-man crew was there to secure a 700-foot oil tanker full of gasoline that had just been collected from the Chevron platform.

Harrison Okene poses inside a decompression chamber with members of the diving team.
Source: YouTube

As part of the $3 billion industry that extracts 238,000 gallons of oil from the ocean yearly, the massive tanker was being thrown around on the rough waters. The Jascon-4 was called to fix a line to the tanker to keep it from capsizing and releasing thousands of gallons of oil into the ocean.

Even the Tanker Needed Help

Although the oil tanker was massive compared to the Jascon-4, it couldn’t withstand the force of mother nature. The crew on the tugboat didn’t seem too concerned about the dangerous waters because they were used to going on these types of missions in similar conditions. It didn’t occur to them that they were also in danger.

A still of Okene sitting underwater.
Harrison Okene. Source: YouTube

Among the crew was 29-year-old Harrison Okene. He was the cook on the Jascon-4 and had been on missions like this several times. He knew the risks of being in dangerous waters next to massive oil tankers like the one the crew was helping that day.

An Early Morning

Okene knew that as long as he cooked good food and didn’t make the captain sick, his job was secure. On the morning of May 26, he awoke at five AM to start prepping food like every other day on the boat. He sleepily got out of bed and headed to the bathroom.

A portrait of Okene early morning.
Harrison Okene. Source: Pinterest

He felt the way most people feel when they have to wake up at five AM on a Sunday. Shortly after Okene sat down to do his morning business, a huge wave smacked into the side of the Jascon-4. It sprayed the deck with water and cracked pieces of the hull.

Panic Set In

The massive wave hit the Jascon-4 with so much force that it flipped the tugboat on its side. Okene was still in the bathroom, and he was thrown out of the stall as the boat started sinking. He rushed out of the bathroom and ran down the hall to the emergency hatch.

Okene speaks during an interview.
Source: YouTube

Three of his crewmates were already trying to seal off that hatch, but a huge wave of freezing water hit them. They were carried into the abyss, and Okene knew the men were dead. Trapped below deck, he had no time to think, with his only escape route blocked by rushing water.

He Had Nowhere to Go

Okene fought against the current to get to the officer’s cabin. However, the water was too strong. It pushed him back into the bathroom attached to the captain’s room and against a wall as the waves rolled the boat upside down.

An image of a boat in the middle of a sea storm.
Source: Pinterest

The Jascon-4 started sinking to the bottom of the ocean. But something strange happened along the way: Okene didn’t drown. As water filled the room, he swam up and got caught in a four-foot air bubble. It was completely dark, so Okene hung on as the tugboat sank further.

Trapped on the Ocean Floor

It seemed like the boat had been sinking for hours when it finally settled on the ocean floor. Okene was sweating even in the freezing water because he was terrified. He was trapped in what he thought would be his watery grave.

An image of the boat before the storm / A portrait of Okene.
Source: Pinterest

Okene couldn’t move from his air bubble. He had to tread water or use his strength to hold his head above the water. He maintained his breathing because he knew his oxygen was limited. He had no food or water and was practically nude in freezing water.

Praying for a Rescue

Okene had no light, no drinkable water and no food. Initially, he thought there was no way anyone would find him because everyone else on board was dead. But Okene refused to give up, knowing the freezing water or excessive carbon monoxide would eventually take him.

A video still of Okene at the bottom of the sea.
Source: YouTube

He didn’t know what to do, so he just prayed. Okene said, “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.”

The Weather Was Too Rough

When the Jascon-4 flipped, Nigerian rescue crews got the mayday call, but they couldn’t do anything because the storm was too strong. There wouldn’t have been time to perform a rescue operation before the boat started sinking. It left Okene in a tough spot.

An image of a flipped boat in the sea.
Source: Pinterest

While he waited underwater, hoping someone would find him, rescue crews knew there wasn’t much they could do when it sunk. Even when the weather cleared, there were still hazards with someone swimming inside the upside-down ship. The tugboat was also at the bottom of the ocean.

Too Dangerous to Dive

Okene had no idea how far down the boat had sunk and didn’t know rescuers even knew something had happened. Unfortunately, the Jascon-4 was sitting 30m below the surface. Professional SCUBA divers are not allowed to dive deeper than 30m for more than 20 minutes.

An exterior shot of the boat before sinking.
Source: Pinterest

If rescuers tried to go inside the sunken tugboat, it would take longer than 20 minutes to retrieve bodies and inspect the ship. Meanwhile, Okene was starving, freezing, and pruning like a raisin. He had to hold on to a sink to keep his head above water.

Taking a Risk

Okene was struggling to stay above the water because he was growing tired. He knew he needed to get out of the water and rest because the salt was peeling his skin. He decided to make a risky move, using his last bit of strength to swim into the officer’s cabin.

A video of Okene inside the flipped boat.
Harrison Okene. Source: YouTube

He swam into the darkness, avoiding dangerous obstacles, and collected whatever wooden objects he could find. Okene made a few trips to gather enough wood to fashion a small raft. It wasn’t anything great, but it floated and got him out of the water.

Alone With His Thoughts

The small raft allowed Okene to dry off, warm up, and rest his aching muscles. He was left alone with his thoughts, reviewing his life until that point. The only sounds he heard were his breath and the water hitting the sides of the cabin.

A portrait of Okene during an interview.
Harrison Okene. Source: YouTube

It was so quiet that Okene could hear his dead crew members being eaten by fish and other unseen sea life. Okene thought about how much time he had left and wondered if anyone would find him. He thought about his family and friends.

Three Long Days

Okene lay on his makeshift raft for nearly three days. All he could do was pray and wait for a slow death when the oxygen ran out. He lost track of time lying there, and hours felt like days. He didn’t know if anyone would find him or if anyone was even looking.

Okene sits for an interview after being rescued.
Source: YouTube

He didn’t know when his time would come, and he would be laid to rest with his crew. Luckily, that moment didn’t come.

He Heard a Noise

After almost three days, a South African dive team was able to get down to the wreckage. They salvaged what they could, swimming through the depths in full gear with flashlights. The divers found the bodies of ten dead crew members who didn’t make it out of the wreckage.

An image of a hand at the bottom of the sea.
Source: YouTube

The divers then headed into the ship to investigate. They swam through the dark wreckage of the Jascon-4. As the divers were looking around, Okene heard a noise he hadn’t heard before.

Making Noise

Okene was so shocked when he heard a metallic tapping in the ship. He knew he was running out of oxygen, so he got off his raft and tore the faucet from the sink. He pulled himself up and started banging the faucet against the ceiling.

A picture of Okene.
Source: Pinterest

He wanted to make as much noise as possible so the divers would know someone was alive. Okene worried if they didn’t hear him, the divers would leave him to die. He also worried that the divers would mess up whatever was keeping the air bubble intact.

A Light in the Distance

Okene made as much noise as possible. Moments later, he saw a flashlight down the hallway. It was the first light he had seen in nearly three days. He didn’t want to scare the diver and cause a problem, so Okene gently tapped him as he swam by.

A still of Okene looking scared.
Harrison Okene. Source: Pinterest

Okene worried the diver would try to stab him, thinking he was being attacked by a creature from the deep. Although the diver was startled (and might have peed his wet suit), Okene wasn’t greeted with a jackknife or harpoon.

62 Hours Underwater

On May 28, 62 hours after the Jascon-4 capsized and sank, Okene was on his way to the surface. He was starving, dangerously dehydrated, and exhausted. The divers equipped him with a rebreather and oxygen tank, guiding him out of the wreckage and toward the surface.

An image of Okene right before his rescue.
Source: YouTube

He used his last ounce of strength to swim with them, but he couldn’t get out of the water just yet. Okene had been underwater for so long and inhaled so much nitrogen that bringing him straight to the surface would have killed him immediately.

His Journey Wasn’t Over

Before Okene could resurface, he had to spend 60 hours in a decompression chamber. It helped his body readjust to normal air pressure after spending three days at the bottom of the ocean. Even though the decompression chamber was small, it was an improvement from his air bubble.

A picture of a decompression chamber.
Source: Pinterest

Okene had become an accidental aquanaut. His rescue was captured on a dive camera, showing him reaching out to the diver and standing in the small air bubble. He was only in his underwear and more than ready to end this horrifying ordeal.

Overall Good Health

When Okene was rescued, the divers guided him to a diving bell designed to maintain internal pressure to transfer him to the decompression chamber. He lost consciousness during the transfer but survived. He suffered from peeling skin due to prolonged saltwater exposure.

A portrait of Okene.
Source: NBC News

Okene also dealt with recurring nightmares and insatiable hunger, but otherwise, he was in good health. He thought at least a few of his crewmates got off the boat before it sank but soon learned he was the sole survivor. One body was never found.

A Comforting Presence

Alex Gibbs was a life support technician on duty on the surface during Okene’s rescue. He was shocked to see someone alive but knew that Okene faced a hard recovery. When the divers found him, they noticed early signs of carbon dioxide poisoning.

An image of Okene using a rebreather and an oxygen tank.
Harrison Okene. Source: YouTube

When they got Okene to the diving bell and transferred him to the decompression chamber, Gibbs looked after him for three days. He delivered Okene food, changed his bedding, gave him medicine, and acted as a go-between for Okene to the doctors. He kept Okene calm.

The End of a Nightmare

On June 1, 2013, Okene was finally released from the hospital. He was able to go home and see his family after thinking he would never hug them again. The terrifying underwater ordeal is believed to be the longest any human has ever survived trapped underwater.

A picture of Okene.
Source: Pinterest

Okene didn’t think he would ever see the light of day again, and he was overwhelmed with emotion when he realized he was going to live. Okene felt God had answered his prayers.

A Survival Mystery

It was a mystery how Okene survived so long. One of the rescue team members said, “How it wasn’t full of water is anyone’s guess. I would say someone was looking after him.” When the boat flipped and sank, the trapped air pocket acted as a diving bell.

A dated portrait of Okene at work.
Source: Pinterest

At a depth of 30m, the pressure was four times greater than the surface. The oxygen level in the water was also very low. Since the space was so small, Okene faced major problems because his first breath had already reduced his oxygen levels.

It Was a Miracle

People trapped in closed rooms face serious problems because the concentration of carbon dioxide rises when they start breathing. The level rises until it becomes toxic, and a person can suffocate within a few hours. However, Okene survived for three days.

An image of Okene underwater.
Harrison Okene. Source: CBS News

There is a lot of confusing science that helped people understand how Okene survived, but it is still a miracle. The air pocket stayed intact because of the pressure, but it’s a mystery how he didn’t run out of oxygen sooner. He is lucky to be alive.

Grateful to Be Alive

Okene was incredibly thankful to have survived the ordeal. He thought he was the only one trapped in the ship and only learned about everyone’s deaths when he got to the surface. Okene was saddened by the news, and the trauma stayed with him.

Okene is interviewed at home.
Harrison Okene. Source: YouTube

Although he was happy to see his mother and wife again, Okene had to deal with PTSD and anxiety for a while. He would wake up in the middle of the night feeling like his bed was sinking. He swore he would never go in the ocean again.

Overcoming His Fears

Okene had worked on boats for years before the Jascon-4 sank. However, the ordeal made him say he would never go into the ocean again. He suffered for a few years before he decided to overcome his fear of the ocean.

An image of the sea.
Photo by Marina Leonova/Pexels

After almost two years of staying out of the water, Okene became a certified commercial diver in 2015. The rescue diver who discovered him in the wrecked ship presented Okene with his diving certificate. It was a heartwarming moment and a new chapter of his journey.

An Unusual Rescue

Nine years after Okene’s rescue, Gibbs said he had never experienced a similar situation. He had never been part of a rescue where someone was transferred into a diving bell. It was a freak occurrence, and Gibbs is still bewildered that Okene survived.

A picture of a boat in the middle of a sea storm.
Source: Pinterest

Gibbs said, “The fact that he lived, he found an air pocket, it held for nearly three days, we happened to be in an area with a deep-sea diving boat. So many coincidences had to happen to make this possible.” As we said, it was a miracle.

They Reunited

Nearly a decade later, Okene and Gibbs reunited. They were unexpectedly on the same diving job. Okene is forever grateful to Gibbs and his kindness while he recovered. He was a calming presence in the decompression chamber, which got him through the three days.

A photo of Okene and Gibbs.
Source: Pinterest

Coming back to the surface was a bewildering experience and a huge shock. Okene was disoriented at first, and then it hit him. He realized how lucky he was, and his situation could have turned out much differently. It gave him a renewed sense of faith.

A Newfound Love

Since getting back in the water, Okene has found a newfound love for the ocean and diving. He is now an IMCA Class Two Commercial Air Diver and can dive to depths of 50m. Okene said, “I am enjoying diving; it’s life for me. It’s fun.”

An image of a man diving in the sea.
Photo by Pia/Pexels

Although he was once scared of the ocean, Okene enjoys being in the water now. No one could have imagined that he would get back in the water and feel comfortable after what he went through. He worked hard to overcome his fears.

A Message to Others

Okene fought to survive, and the experience gave him a new perspective on surviving. He said, “The fear can kill you. I took fear off me, and I believed that ‘what will be, will be.’ Believe in yourself and keep your faith and your mind strong.”

A picture of boats on the sea.
Photo by Jess Loiterton/Pexels

Okene is an inspiration to many people. His story of survival has helped many people get through tough times. He could have given up and let the elements take him, but he knew he had a long life to live. Okene lives every day to the fullest now.

The Ultimate Survivor

Many elements helped Okene survive during the three days, and he thanks God that he got through the ordeal. We can’t imagine how many fearful thoughts ran through his mind throughout that time. Every noise and splash would have sent us into a panic.

A photo of Okene.
Harrison Okene. Source: Pinterest

He remained calm and pushed through his fears to stay alive. It was something most people wouldn’t have been able to do. He is incredible, and we can’t even imagine being in his position. The thought of sharks swimming under us is enough to keep us out of the ocean.