Cape divers’ dramatic deep-sea rescue

Cape Town - Strand diver Nico van Heerden made his way through a murky upturned tugboat 30m underwater off the Nigerian coast, coming across bodies as he inched along, when suddenly someone tapped him on the head.

“I got a huge fright, but was relieved to find someone alive,” the 32-year-old said in a message to his wife, Simoné, on Thursday.

From left to right, Andr Erasmus of Durban, Darryl Oosthuizen of Edgemead and Nico van Heerden of Strand get ready to search a capsized tugboat off the coast of Nigeria. Credit: Supplied

The person who had tapped him was Harrison Okene - the sole survivor of a crew of 12 in the capsized tugboat - who managed to breathe inside an air bubble while trapped under the upturned vessel.

Okene, the ship’s Nigerian cook, survived like that for 62 hours. His rescue and survival made international headlines.

Van Heerden and two other saturation divers who helped to rescue Okene - Darryl Oosthuizen of Edgemead and André Erasmus from Durban - were at sea off the Nigerian coast.

They work for subsea services company DCN Global, which was a technical partner of ADS, a Nigerian diving company.

The dramatic rescue operation started on May 26 when the tugboat, the Jascon-4, capsized about 30km offshore.

The rescue spanned three days. It involved helicopters and various vessels, and the divers were slowly acclimatised to working at different sea depths.

On Thursday Simoné van Heerden said she had been in contact with her husband the day the tugboat capsized and he had simply mentioned he was on his way to the scene.

The next time she got word from her husband was on the third night after he left for the tugboat.

He told her: “Ek het ’n f**ken awesome dag gehad.” (“I had a f**king awesome day”).

Van Heerden said her husband and his colleagues had been looking for bodies on the tugboat because they had not expected to find anyone alive.

“It took him three hours to open one door. There was one body. He found another two bodies. Then this guy suddenly tapped him on the shoulder,” she said.

“When he turned around and saw that guy’s face… That feeling can’t be explained.”

Van Heerden said her husband had been “shocked and overwhelmed” at finding Okene alive.

“It’s like he was on drugs,” she said, recalling how he had sounded.

The divers had been unable to find the twelfth crew member and the operation was called off because conditions had become dangerous.

A few days after the incident her husband SMSed her early in the morning.

“He mentioned he can’t sleep, because every time he sees these guys’ faces… Just knowing the way they died,” Van Heerden said.

Her husband and his colleagues had been offered counselling.

Van Heerden said he now seemed fine and was expected to return home next month.

When the tugboat capsized, DCN divers were on a dive-support vessel chartered by the Nigerian offshore engineering company West African Ventures.

According to a statement by DCN, they were working on a pipeline project when West African Ventures instructed DCN and ADS to call off the pipeline operations and respond to the tugboat accident.

The DCN statement said the tugboat had sunk to a depth of 30m.

The pipeline operations involving the divers had been conducted 70m underwater, and during the 17 hours it took the divers to get to the scene, they had to be brought to a different working depth.

This process involved the divers staying in a decompression chamber on the surface of the ship and the pressure of the chamber slowly being adjusted along with the mixture of gases the divers breathed.

According to the DCN statement, the divers located the tugboat upside down on the seabed.

Once Okene was discovered alive, the divers showed him how to wear a diving helmet and handed him one, which he put on.

The DCN statement said Okene was escorted out the sunken vessel into a diving bell, and then into decompression chambers.

He stayed in the chambers for roughly two-and-a-half days.

In an interview with news agency Reuters, Okene was quoted as saying he had heard fish eating his colleagues’ bodies.

He said the fact the room he was in had not filled with water was “a miracle”.