Drama in Real Life: Trapped on the Bottom of the Ocean

Harrison Okene was the only survivor after his boat sank to the ocean floor.

picture under water
Photograph by Yasu+Junko, inset image DCN Diving/AP Photo

At 4:30 on a Sunday morning, two hours before dawn, the tugboat Jascon 4 was towing a tanker toward an oil platform 20 miles off the coast of Nigeria. The wind was stiff and the sea choppy, but conditions weren’t rough enough to alarm the Ukrainian captain or his crew of 11 Nigerians. Most of them were in bed, their doors bolted against pirates—a constant menace in this corner of the South Atlantic. The tug’s cook, Harrison Okene, was below deck, preparing to start his shift.

Suddenly, a rogue wave struck the vessel broadside. The towrope snapped, throwing the boat off-balance. Okene, 29, was tossed around. He saw three men washed away as they ran toward an exit hatch. The rush of water swept Okene into the officers’ bathroom, where he held on to the sink to keep his head from going under. “Everywhere was dark as I was thrown from one end of the [boat] to the other,” Okene told a reporter for Nigeria’s Nation newspaper. In moments, the craft had turned upside down and begun sinking toward the ocean floor, 100 feet below.

An overturned boat doesn’t always fill with water immediately; like an inverted cup plunged underwater, it can hold pockets of air that persist for some time. That was the case with the Jascon 4. Once the boat settled on the bottom, Okene swam or waded from room to pitch-dark room, groping for anything that might help him survive. In one cabin, he found a life vest fitted with two emergency beacons. In the engineers’ office, there were tools; he used a screwdriver to remove the beacons, which he stuffed into his boxer shorts (the only clothing he was wearing) to keep his hands free.

Aided by the lights, Okene discovered a cabin that had been kept mostly dry by an air pocket. As the water crept higher, he used a hammer to pry paneling off the wall. He laid the planks atop a stack of mattresses. Then he stood on the platform—clutching a bottle of Coke that he’d come across in his rummaging—and prayed that the water would stop rising. After reaching his chest, it did.

Okene had no idea how long the air pocket would last or if anyone would find him before it disappeared. All he could do was wait and hope. To pass time, he replayed his life, beginning with his earliest memories. He thought about his wife of five years, Akpos, and wondered if he would live to become a father. He was distracted by thrashing sounds outside the cabin and guessed that sharks or barracudas were eating the bodies of friends he’d been laughing with the night before. Terrified, he grabbed a plank of paneling to fend off predators.

Okene made the soda last as long as possible, but when it ran out, hunger and thirst set in. His skin began to peel from soaking in salt water; his tongue grew sore and swollen, and his body temperature dropped lower and lower. The emergency beacons fizzled out, leaving him in darkness again. He was unbearably tired, but he recited Bible verses to keep himself awake. If he slept, he knew, he might drown or be devoured. Or he might miss his rescuers, should they ever appear.

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And then he heard something banging on the hull of the boat. Okene grabbed a hammer and banged back. A few minutes later, a light appeared in the water beneath him—a diver’s headlamp. The man touched Okene’s fingers, thinking he’d found a corpse. Okene squeezed the man’s hand. “He’s alive! He’s alive!” the diver shouted into his radio headset.

As Okene later learned, the company that owned the tugboat had hired a South African scuba team, DCN Diving, to recover bodies from the vessel; they’d found four corpses and were astounded to discover that Okene was not the fifth.

The search team fitted Okene with an oxygen mask, then hustled him into a diving bell, which took him to the surface. When he saw the starry sky, he assumed he’d spent a day underwater. In fact, the men told him, it was Tuesday evening. He’d been trapped underwater for 62 hours—nearly three full days.

Okene spent another 60 hours in a decompression chamber. At last, he returned home to the city of Warri, on the Niger Delta, where he reunited with his loved ones and tried to put the nightmare behind him.

Okene’s shocking story has intrigued scientists all over the world. How could a man survive in a four-foot-high air pocket underwater for three days without running out of oxygen, being poisoned by the carbon dioxide he exhaled, or succumbing to hypothermia? Maxim Umansky, a physicist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, speculates that another air pocket under the hull of the boat must have been feeding additional oxygen into Okene’s air pocket. Anna V., a commenter on the Stack Exchange Physics blog, got more philosophical: “He was just lucky that the air siphoned where he was trapped.”

Okene, the Jascon 4’s sole survivor, is grateful for his deliverance, but he isn’t sure he’ll ever go back to sea. “Sometimes it feels like the bed I’m sleeping in is sinking,” he told a Reuters reporter. “I jump up screaming.”

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