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'It was horror': Man survives 2 days in air bubble under capsized boat

 

Joe Brock, Reuters

Harrison Okene, 29, poses for a photograph after an interview with Reuters on June 12 in Nigeria's oil city of Warri.

WARRI, Nigeria — After two days trapped in freezing cold water and breathing from an air bubble in an upturned tugboat under the ocean, Harrison Okene was sure he was going to die.

The ship's cook Okene, 29, was on board a tugboat when it capsized on May 26 due to heavy Atlantic ocean swells about 20 miles off the coast of Nigeria.

Of the 12 people on board, divers recovered 10 dead bodies and one remaining crew member has not been found.

Somehow Okene survived, breathing inside a four foot high bubble of air as it shrunk in the waters slowly rising from the ceiling of the tiny toilet and adjoining bedroom where he sought refuge, until two South African divers eventually rescued him.

"I was there in the water in total darkness just thinking it's the end. I kept thinking the water was going to fill up the room but it did not," Okene said, parts of his skin peeling away after days soaking in the salt water.

"I was so hungry but mostly so, so thirsty. The salt water took the skin off my tongue," he said.

On the day of the capsize, Okene said he was in the toilet when he realized the tugboat was beginning to turn over. As water rushed in and the tugboat flipped, he forced open the metal door.

"Three guys were in front of me and suddenly water rushed in full force. I saw the first one, the second one, the third one just washed away. I knew these guys were dead."

What he didn't know was that he would spend the next two and a half days trapped under the sea in that tiny bathroom.

"I couldn't see anything," said Okene.

"But I could perceive the dead bodies of my crew were nearby. I could smell them. The fish came in and began eating the bodies. I could hear the sound. It was horror."

Meanwhile, divers were searching for crew members, assuming they were all dead.

On the afternoon of May 28, Okene heard them.

"I heard a sound of a hammer hitting the vessel. Boom, boom, boom ... I hammered the side of the vessel hoping someone would hear me."

Then divers broke into the ship. "I was waving my hands and he was shocked," Okene said of the rescuer who noticed him.

Okene said he reached the surface more than 60 hours after the ship sank and spent another 60 hours in a decompression chamber where his body pressure was returned to normal. If he had been exposed immediately to the outside air he would have died.

Okene is not sure he will return to the sea.

"When I am at home sometimes it feels like the bed I am sleeping in is sinking. I think I'm still in the sea again. I jump up and I scream," Okene said, shaking his head.