Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Miracle in the Atlantic Ocean

Divers look for remains, find a surprise instead

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LAGOS, Nigeria -- Entombed at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean in an upended tugboat for three days, Harrison Odjegba Okene begged God for a miracle.

The Nigerian cook survived by breathing an ever-dwindling supply of oxygen in an air pocket. A video of Okene's rescue in May -- http://youtu.be/ArWGILmKCqE -- that was posted on the Internet more than six months later has gone viral this week.

As the temperature dropped to freezing, Okene, dressed only in boxer shorts, recited the last psalm his wife had sent earlier by text message, sometimes called the Prayer for Deliverance: "Oh God, by your name, save me. ...The Lord sustains my life."

To this day, Okene believes his rescue after 72 hours underwater at a depth of 30 metres is a sign of divine deliverance. The other 11 seamen aboard the Jascon 4 died.

Divers sent to the scene were looking only for bodies, according to Tony Walker, project manager for the Dutch company DCN Diving.

The divers, who were working on a neighbouring oil field 120 kilometres away when they were deployed, had already pulled up four bodies.

So, when a hand appeared on the TV screen Walker was monitoring in the rescue boat, showing what the diver in the Jascon saw, everybody assumed it was another corpse.

"The diver acknowledged that he had seen the hand and then, when he went to grab the hand, the hand grabbed him!" Walker said in a telephone interview Tuesday.

"It was frightening for everybody," he said. "For the guy that was trapped because he didn't know what was happening. It was a shock for the diver while he was down there looking for bodies, and we (in the control room) shot back when the hand grabbed him on the screen."

On the video, there's an exclamation of fear and shock from Okene's rescuer, and then joy as the realization sets in. Okene recalls hearing: "There's a survivor! He's alive."

Walker said Okene couldn't have lasted much longer.

"He was incredibly lucky he was in an air pocket but he would have had a limited time (before)... he wouldn't be able to breathe anymore."

Okene's ordeal began around 4:30 a.m. on May 26. He was in the toilet when the tug, one of three towing an oil tanker in Nigeria's oil-rich Delta waters, gave a sudden lurch and then keeled over.

He groped his way out of the toilet and tried to find a vent, propping doors open as he moved on.

As the waters rose, he made a rack on top of a platform and piled two mattresses on top. According to his interview with the Nation: "I started calling on the name of God. ...I started reminiscing on the verses I read before I slept."

He survived off just one bottle of Coke, all he had to sustain him during the trauma. He was rescued by a diver who first used hot water to warm him up, then attached him to an oxygen mask. Once free of the sunken boat, he was put into a decompression chamber and safely returned to the surface.

 

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 4, 2013 A11

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