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The Rescue of Harrison Okene

The following is taken from Nigerian Newspaper, The Nation. The photos I have added, which have been taken from various sources.

In the early hours of May 26 2013, the cook onboard AHT Jascon 4, an oil service tugboat working for Chevron, left his bed. Harrison Okene is an early riser; he loves to get a headstart over his colleagues aboard. The vessel was one of many on the fleet of West Africa Ventures (WAV), a Nigerian subsidiary of Dutch-based marine contractor, Sea Truck Group.

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The time was just about 4.30am. He went to the bathroom to ease himself as he listened to the familiar sound of the vessel cutting through the choppy waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

In other cabins, crew members comprising four cadets on industrial training from the Maritime Academy of Nigeria, Oron, Akwa Ibom State, were fast asleep, with their doors firmly secured behind. The menace of sea pirates and other marauders, who routinely rob, attack and abduct crew members of such vessel, forced vessels operating in the region to enforce strict security measures once it is dark.

The dozen seamen, comprising 11 Nigerians and the Ukrainian captain of the vessel, bolted their doors behind on the night of May 25 before going to bed.

The boat was on a routine assignment with a tanker vessel at the Single Buoy Mooring (SBM) #3 in the BOP, a crude loading terminal of CNL. It seemed to be going on so well until that morning when, after a sudden violent turn, it plunged into the Atlantic, which may have now become its final resting place.

What caused the rugged tugboat, which was built in 2004, to keel over was yet unknown at the time of this report. Chevron’s General Manager in charge of Policy, Government and Public Affairs, Mr. Deji Haastrup, said initial report indicated that the accident was caused by a “sudden ocean swell”.

That ‘ocean swell’ also began a nearly 72-hour ordeal under the belly of the Atlantic Ocean for the cherub-faced Okene, who was barely days away from marking the fifth anniversary of his wedding to his heartthrob, Akpos.
A source, who pleaded for anonymity, said: “It was about 5am when the accident occurred. The vessel was one of the three towing a tanker to the loading point when it occurred. The sea was very rough and the wave was beating on the vessel and it was windy and turbulent. The tension rope snapped and obviously unbalanced the vessel thereby causing it to capsize.”

Okene was dazed by the turn of event.

He recalled in an exclusive interview with The Nation on Tuesday: “I was dazed and everywhere was dark as I was thrown from one end of the small cubicle to another.

“I made my way out of the toilet, groped through the dark into a place I imagined was the officers’ rest room. From there I moved to engineers’ office. I wasn’t seeing (anything), I was just feeling my way with my hands. I knew that if there is a vent, I would find a door, key and the knob. When I find a door, I try and get something (a stopper) to keep it open.”

Naked, except for a pair of black boxers short, Okene started the long road to survival. He moved from one part of the vessel to the other until he found an object with two flashing lights.
“I saw a light vest with two lights. It showed me that that was a room. When I went to another room, I saw a draw with tools. I took out the lights (from the vest) and put them inside my boxers.”
When he located the part of the sunken vessel where he felt safest, Harrison began the long wait for rescue, if it would come. He said he spent the time playing back the tape of his life, thinking about his wife, mother, family and friends.
As he waited, the water started to rise in the cabin, so he took out two mattresses he got from the cabin and stacked one on the other. Working with some of the tools he got from the office, he built a rack on top the platform down, praying and waiting.
“I prayed about a hundred times. When I was tired, I started calling on the name of God. I was just calling on His name for divine intervention. I started reminiscing on the verses I read before I slept. I read the Bible from Psalm 54 to 92. My wife had sent me the verses to read that night when she called me before I went to bed.”

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Harrison Okene

Unwanted Visitors
As he waited and prayed, Okene pondered the fate of his friends and colleagues, most of whom he chatted, played and laughed with the night before the accident.
After what seemed like eternity inside the dark lonely confinement, he felt the movement of unwanted visitors in the form of fishes (sharks or/and barracudas) swimming in and out of the adjoining spaces.
Then he heard sounds as if the fishes were either fighting or eating something big that could possibly be the flesh of dead men.
“At that point I was very scared,” he said. But determined not to go down without a fight, he groped in the dark for a weapon to defend himself if the invaders entered his space. He found it in the form of a plank.
“I said so this is how I am going to die? What would happen to my wife? So, she will become a widow. I don’t even have a child yet. What about my mother and everybody I love? So I will never see them again!”
He was cold (temperature was put at about freezing point), hungry and scared as the time ticked away, but his major concern was for survival. He had no clock with him, so he didn’t even know that he had been there for about two days.
After what seemed like eternity, he said he heard humming like that of a boat’s engine. “Then I heard sound like anchor dropping again. I also heard sound of paddling and divers’ craft moving around the boat. I also heard hammering sound from afar.”
The sound lifted him. But with the size of the boat, it would take a miracle for the rescue diver to locate him. He decided to make it easier for them. Waddling through the room, he found more tools, including a hammer. He began to strip the wall of the cabin until he got to the steel body.
“I started using the hammer to hit the wall to attract the divers. I heard them moving about. They were far away from where I was. I did that for some minutes and stopped. After a while, the sound died.”
As the sound of the rescue team drifted away, his hopes for rescue petered out with it.

“No Survivor”
Meanwhile, back at the base, the management of the firm had contacted relatives of those on board. Rumours were rife that all 12 crew died. Among those who heard the report on Monday evening were Okene’s elder brother and his sister-in-law. They were told that the bodies of victims had been found.
His wife said a family friend called that she should be advised to go and identify her husband’s remains.
Worried about how to break the sad news to his mother and wife, the older Okene deceived the mother that there was a family meeting in Lagos. He intended to break the news to her there in the presence of older relatives who would manage the situation.
Recalling the drama, his mother said: “As we were going to Lagos that Tuesday, his elder brother kept calling and he was always talking in codes and hushed tone. I was curious, but he assured me that it was just business discussions with clients.
“I did not know that Odjegba (Okene) was involved in an accident at sea and that was why he was acting suspicious and that was why they were dragging me to Lagos,” Mrs. Okene told our reporter.

He’s alive
Underwater, minutes or hours later, he couldn’t tell, but soon after the first rescuer left without locating him, Okene said he heard another sound. This time it got closer and he could feel movement in the water underneath him.
Sensing that the latest team held the keys to his escape from a slow, sad death, Okene jumped into the icy water and went in search of his rescuer.
“My hands and feet were very white (pale). When I located him, I was the one who touched the diver, I touched his head and he was shocked. He was searching and I just saw the light, so I jumped into the water. As he was shocked, he stretched out his hands. I touched him.”
The news was quickly relayed to the rescue ship through video camera and other communication gadgets attached to the diver. The confirmation of a survivor elicited jubilation.
Okene said he heard voices from the diver’s speaker shouting “there is a survivor, he is alive.”
Locating the survivor was the first part of the difficult task for the multinational Search and Rescue team, which immediately started the process of bringing him out of the water alive and with minimum damage.
His rescuer, a South African identified simply as Nico, was amazed by his calmness as he waited for his evacuation. Asked how he managed to remain so calm, he said: “At that point, I knew there was nothing I could do for myself again. God had done the most part. I just had to wait and see.”
A safety rope and oxygen mask were later deployed. But before he could be brought out, his body pressure had to be kept at a safe level. So, a vial of warm water was also sent down for a quick bath after which he and the diver got into the decompression chamber (DCC) for the journey back to ‘life’.
At 7pm, over 60 hours after he went into the toilet, Okene was brought out of the ill-fated Jascon 4 alive.
A statement from the vessel owners confirmed this development: “We are able to report that divers have found and identified one survivor, Mr Okene Harrison. He was the vessel’s cook and of Nigerian nationality. Mr Harrison was medically examined and he is currently in a stable condition and under treatment on board the diving support vessel.”
Okene described how he felt when he first came out of the water: “When we came out, I saw the stars in the sky and I thought I must have been in the water for the whole day. I thought it was the Sunday evening. It was after I left the DCC that I was told that I had spent over two days there,” he recalled with a smile.
Meanwhile, his wife of five years was completely in the dark about what her husband was going through. She thought he was still at work, while those who wanted to communicate the ‘sad’ news were unable to reach her because she had misplaced her GSM handset hours before the accident.
“I will just attribute everything to the grace of God,” Mrs. Akpos Okene said.

Rescue Operation is called off
On Friday morning, one survivor and 10 bodies after, WAV called off the rescue operation, much to the angst of family members of the last seafarer, who until then were hoping for a miraculous story similar to Okene’s.
A statement by the company said, “The search and rescue operation that has been under way since 26 May has had to be stopped for safety reasons.”
It said the upside-down position of the vessel made it unstable and risky to its rescue divers.
WAV CEO Jacques Roomans extended the company’s “deepest sympathy” to all affected family members.
Nevertheless, grieving families are asking questions about what led to the fatal accident that took 11 lives? Was it failure of equipment? Was it human error?
Whatever the answers, they will be no consolation for the families of Richard Egbe, Basil, parents of four students of MAN, Oron, who got drowned.
Okene said, in spite of his good fortune, he was saddened by the death of so many friends, noting that their deaths showed him that not everybody gets a second chance at life.
“We know how much we owe God for this,” his wife said.

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Some of the DCN crew on the Lewek Toucan. Not shown are the divers who carried out the rescue, who were still in sat at the time of the photo.

From a post on longstreath.com:

The Lewek Toucan which was working 17 hours way from the site of the tragic loss.

The vessel sank at 04:30 in the morning, around 09:00 we were diverted from our task in the Okpono Field to standby at the Escravoss SBM, the site of the sinking.

We commenced a survey on arrival and found the vessel sitting on the sea bed upside down in 32 metres of water, the stern buried into the mud and the keel at the bow some 20 mertres.

It became obvious that the chance of finding survivors was slight, the client wanted to try and recover the bodies for the families, so we began a search of the vessel using our sat teams.

Having recovered I think three bodies, divers found Harrison Okene in an air pocket at approx 30metres, some 90 hours after the ordeal began.

Finding him alive was only part of the problem, the issue was then to get him out of the wreck and safely back to the surface, this was done using the diver three umbilical a band mask and harness, the diver dressed him in and then lead him out with diver two tending from outside the vessel. They transferred him into the bell and then back into the sat system where after a 24 hour hold we commenced a deco.

On surfacing following an uneventful deco, then a bend watch the guy was transferred to the hospital onshore by chopper for a reunion with his family.

Throughout the deco, divers continued with the search and eventually accounted for 11 of the 12 crew.

It was a monuments effort on the part of all concerned both divers and deck crew who had the unfortunate task of handling the bodies once on surface.

One air basket was used as an elevator for the body recovery.

All in all, an amazing story. The professionalism of all involved, from the divers who carried out the rescue, to the DCN management who helped plan the operation, has to be respected.

Harrison Okene is one lucky man!


Carlos Zarate
09 Jun 2013 09:28 AM
very touching story, congratulations to the rescue team

Nice one Nico, not bad for the first time in the can!

Michael Smart
10 Jun 2013 02:47 AM

Well done Mark.


So glad for Okene that someone in management said, "Get the divers to have a look."

Mark Longstreath
14 Jun 2013 12:20 AM

From: http://subseaworldne...FGjtj0.facebook


Lewek Toucan:


On Sunday 26 May, the tugboat Jascon 4 ran into difficulties whilst engaged in static towing operations, capsized and sank with a crew of 12 on board.

At the time, the tug was approx. 30 km off the coast of Escravos in Nigeria, offering assistance to a tanker being loaded at a Single Mooring System (SBM). The rescue operation involving helicopters and other vessels swung into action almost immediately. At that time, there was no trace of the crew members.

At the moment of the disaster, the Lewek Toucan, chartered by West African Ventures, with a team of DCN divers on board, was 17 hours sailing distance from the accident site. The team was involved in saturation diving work for the Okpoho-Okono 16 pipeline project being undertaken by DCN Diving in collaboration with DCN Global.

As Internet reports about the accident continued to develop, the realisation grew among the divers that there could still be survivors of the Jascon 4, trapped in an air pocket.

Direct contact between the client and the management of DCN Global resulted in the immediate order to head for the accident site and offer all possible assistance in finding the crew members.

The current operation was immediately halted, with divers from DCN actually in saturation at a pressure of 70 metres. The Jascon 4 had however sunk in 30 metre-deep water. The 17 hour sailing time was used to bring the divers to a saturation pressure of 30 metres. Once at the accident site, the divers discovered that the wreck was upside down, and the cook on board the Jascon 4 was indeed trapped in an air pocket in a still intact compartment. After 62 hours trapped in the air pocket, he was brought to the surface safe and well, by the divers from DCN.

This successful rescue raised hope among the DCN team that other live victims would perhaps be found, but further investigations sadly revealed only the remains of 10 deceased crew members.

The 6 divers, the deck crew and technical staff worked uninterrupted. They can be duly proud of the result of their work: 1 person rescued alive, and 10 crew members retrieved from the wreck. Even the retrieval of remains represents an important contribution to the mourning process for the victims’ families.

Mark Longstreath
14 Jun 2013 12:24 AM

From: http://www.news24.co...r-fate-20130612




Warri - 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. Then a torch light pierced the darkness.

Ship's cook Okene, 29, was on board the Jascon-4 tugboat when it capsized on 26 May due to heavy Atlantic ocean swells around 30km off the coast of Nigeria, while stabilising an oil tanker filling up at a Chevron platform.

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

Somehow Okene survived, breathing inside a 1.2m- 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. Seawater got into his mouth, but he had nothing to eat or drink throughout his ordeal.

At 04:50 on 26 May, Okene says he was in the toilet when he realised the tugboat was beginning to turn over. As water rushed in and the Jascon-4 flipped, he forced open the metal door.

"As I was coming out of the toilet it was pitch black so we were trying to link our way out to the water tidal [exit hatch]," Okene told Reuters in his home town of Warri, a city in Nigeria's oil-producing Niger Delta.

"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."

Smell bodies

What he didn't know was that he would spend the next two and a half days trapped under the sea praying he would be found.

Turning away from his only exit, Okene was swept along a narrow passageway by surging water into another toilet, this time adjoining a ship's officers cabin, as the overturned boat crashed onto the ocean floor. To his amazement he was still breathing.

Okene, wearing only his underpants, survived around a day in the .37m² toilet, holding onto the overturned washbasin to keep his head out of the water.

He built up the courage to open the door and swim into the officer's bedroom and began pulling off the wall panelling to use as a tiny raft to lift himself out of the freezing water.

He sensed he was not alone in the darkness.

"I was very, very cold and it was black. I couldn't see anything," says Okene, staring into the middle distance.

"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."

What Okene didn't know was a team of divers sent by Chevron and the ship's owners, West African Ventures, were searching for crew, assumed by now to be dead.

Then in the afternoon of 28 May, Okene heard them.

Boom, boom, boom

"I heard a sound of a hammer hitting the vessel. Boom, boom, boom. I swam down and found a water dispenser. I pulled the water filter and I hammered the side of the vessel hoping someone would hear me. Then the diver must have heard a sound."

Divers broke into the ship and Okene saw light from a head torch of someone swimming along the passageway past the room.

"I went into the water and tapped him. I was waving my hands and he was shocked," Okene said, his relief still visible.

He thought he was at the bottom of the sea, although the company says it was 30m below.

The diving team fitted Okene with an oxygen mask, diver's suit and helmet and he reached the surface at 19:32, more than 60 hours after the ship sank, he says.

Okene says he spent another 60 hours in a decompression chamber where his body pressure was returned to normal. Had he just been exposed immediately to the outside air he would have died.

The cook describes his extraordinary survival story as a "miracle" but the memories of his time in the watery darkness still haunt him and he 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.

"I don't know what stopped the water from filling that room. I was calling on God. He did it. It was a miracle."

If he was from Europe or North America, Hollywood would be fighting for the movie rights. That is a once-in-a-lifetime story.

Mark Longstreath
18 Jun 2013 01:03 PM

From: http://www.iol.co.za...8#disqus_thread
From left to right, Andre 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.

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.

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”.

Mark Longstreath
18 Jun 2013 01:32 PM

The following is quoted from Nico Van Heerden regards the above story.:

Not very happy about how the Cape times makes it sounds like I rescued the guy, we all worked together as a team. Maybe the times should speak to the actual people involved before printing a story.

Good on you Nico. All I can say is well done to all involved.
But take it while you can, you might even get a free beer or two!

Nico Van Heerden, Darryl Oosthuizen, Andre Erasmus and their new friend Harrison the survivor.

Michael Smart
20 Jun 2013 12:08 AM

Excellent photos!


I wonder if Nico Van Heerden is the son of South African diver Andre Van Heerden?  If so, then rescues run in the family.  


On March 9, 1978, Andre Van Heerden and Eric Arndt rescued submariners Jamie Jones and Bill Cornwall when their small Perry submarine became trapped on the seabed near the Frigg Field in the North Sea.  Andre exited a lockout submarine from the Intersub 3 and cleared the rope that had snared the Perry submarine's propeller.

Those Who Have Died