‘My heart skipped a beat’
The South African dive team that found Harrison Okene, the Nigerian ship’s cook who spent almost three days in an air bubble 30m under the sea, has for the first time described the euphoria of finding him alive after pulling out the bodies of his 10 colleagues.
The doomed crewmen were in a Chevron-chartered Jascon 4 tugboat, which capsized 27km off Escaros in the oil rich Nigerian coast last month due to heavy Atlantic Ocean swells. They had been helping to stabilise an oil tanker filling up at a Chevron platform.
Of the 12 people on board, one crew member has not yet been found.
Okene, who spoke to the Daily News this week, said he was mourning the death of his 10 colleagues while trying to come to terms with his newfound fame.
Deep sea divers, André Erasmus 42, of Durban, Nico van Heerden, 32, and Darryl Oosthuizen, 47, both of Cape Town, were repairing offshore oil rigs 90m under the sea on the West African coast when they responded to a Mayday call on May 26.
Van Heerden, who is still working on an oil rig in Nigeria, answered questions from the Daily News via e-mail on Thursday – as cellphone reception was bad – saying that they had not expected to find anyone alive when they swam into the bowels of the upturned tugboat nearly three days after it sank.
He said none of them had ever had to recover dead bodies before and when they were called out to the scene they were all nervous.
“In the back of your mind you always think of what can go wrong, being stuck inside the wreck while the dynamic position dive vessel has a run-off and loses position for example,” he said. “Also there was a lot of movement felt inside the wreck, and we were not sure whether it was stable or sinking further into the soft mud it was lying in upside down.”
Van Heerden said once they had broken down the first door and recovered the first body it became routine.
”Because of the dangers of entering a sunken vessel and the possibility of being trapped inside, only one diver was allowed to enter the vessel, so Darryl was standing outside a door we broke down to gain access and tending (to) my umbilical (oxygen pipe) while I was inside the vessel locating bodies,” he said.
“Remember, we weren’t expecting to find anyone alive. I was shocked when Harrison stuck his hand out to me and touched my shoulder. My heart skipped a beat,” Van Heerden said.
Speaking from the couple’s home in Cape Town, Van Heerden’s wife Simoné said after finding Okene alive her husband called her that night.
“He said to me that he had the most awesome day ever.
“He said it was the most amazing experience he ever had in his life when they found him. They left as it became too unsafe to continue.
“The rest of the week the guys were pretty shaken by what they experienced because they had never recovered bodies before. He told me that he was waking up in the the morning with nightmares because every time he closes his eyes he sees the faces of the people he found in the water. It was quite hectic,” she said.
Okene, 29, believes the manner of his rescue meant that God had given him a second chance at life.
Speaking from his home in Nigeria’s Delta state he said: “A lot of people died and I didn’t. It was because I had cried out to Jesus and he saved me. I am convinced that it was God himself who placed the air bubble there for me to live,” Okene said.
“Now there are people lining up to see me and to touch me.”
The vessel had been towing a tanker to a mooring buoy when it was flipped by heavy swells.
According to the owners of the boat, West Africa Ventures, the vessel capsized but did not sink to the bottom. It floated 30m below the surface, with Okene trapped inside. Ten crew including its Ukrainian captain died.
Okene managed to survive by getting himself into a 1.5m by 3m air bubble, where he perched on a table to keep himself alive, drinking softdrinks out of cans floating around him.
“It was in the morning at around 4.50am when the boat flipped,” Okene recalled.
“I was in the toilet and managed to get out and go into the next room. The lights in the boat were all out and the water was filling the boat. I managed to go into the next room, which was the engineer’s room, and luckily I found a life jacket with a pair of lights on which I put on and used to be able see,” he said.
At the time, Okene did not know the fate of his crew mates as everyone was required to lock themselves in, as pirates often raided boats and ships in the area.
“I lost track of time while I was in the room. I didn’t know how long I was in there, but in my mind it must have been a few hours,” he recalled. “During the time I was calling out the name of God and asking for his help.”
Okene said he heard the sounds of big fish in a cabin nearby and what sounded like flesh being eaten. “I was afraid and found something to protect myself but I continued to pray and call the name of Jesus,” he said.
“Then a diver suddenly swam past me and I touched him and he got the biggest shock. They gave me oxygen and took me back up (to the surface).”
Okene said he knew the South African divers who rescued him well because they had worked on other projects in the region.
Because he had been 30m under water his body had filled with nitrogen. Divers had to put him into a decompression helmet before he could be safely brought to the surface. He had to spend two days in a compression chamber to relieve the gases that had built up in his body.
Okene said he did not know he had spent three days under water until he was told by one of the divers who rescued him.
“I could not believe it when I was told. He just said it was true and told me to go home and tell my wife I love her.”
Okene said the experience had shown him that life was too short.
“This past Sunday we had a thanksgiving service at my church to thank the Lord for what he has done and so many people came to witness it. I can’t even tell you how many came because there were just crowds upon crowds. All of them wanted to see me and to touch me. I spoke to them and told them that we serve a true and living God who moved those waters and made me live,” he said.
Okene said he had no immediate plans for the future and was enjoying spending time with his wife and family.
“They have not told me when I need to come back to work as there are a lot things that need to be sorted out,” he said. “I am not ready to go back to sea just yet.”