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The Rescue of Harrison Okene
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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!