Man Survives 3 Days Underwater, Trapped In Shipwreck Air Bubble [VIDEO]

By Josh Lieberman on December 4, 2013 2:57 PM EST

Harrison Okene
Harrison Okene spent three days trapped in the air pocket of a capsized tugboat off the coast of Nigeria. (Photo: Reuters)

Video has surfaced of the rescue of a Nigerian man who was trapped for three days in the air pocket of a sunken tugboat. The ship capsized in May, sinking to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean and killing 11 crew members. The ship's cook, Harrison Okene, 29, was the only survivor.

At around 4:30 AM on May 26, Okene got up to go to the bathroom as a "sudden ocean swell" capsized the Jacson-4 tugboat, which was towing a Chevron oil tanker. As the tugboat sank 100 feet to the ocean floor, water rushed into the ship, pushing Okene down a hall and into the officer's restroom. Okene became trapped in the restroom--but trapped, fortunately, with a four-foot air bubble.

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"I was there in the water in total darkness just thinking it's the end," said Okene. "I kept thinking the water was going to fill up the room but it did not.... I was so hungry but mostly so, so thirsty. The salt water took the skin off my tongue.... I was very, very cold and it was black. I couldn't see anything, 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."

After 60 hours of that nightmare, a South African diving team dispatched to bring up the bodies came upon Okene. In the dramatic video of the rescue (embedded below), diver Nico Van Heerden comes upon Okene's outstretched hand around the 5:30 mark. Believing it's a dead body, Van Heerden grabs Okene's hand and is surprised to find it grabbing back. "He's alive, he's alive!" shouts supervisor Colby Werrett, radioing from above the surface.

Okene had to spend another 60 hours in a decompression chamber after his rescue, as his body pressure needed to return to normal. Had he surfaced sooner, Okene could have died from the bends.

And of course he also could have died if the divers had gotten to Okene any later. It's difficult to know how long much longer the air bubble could have kept him alive. Eventually carbon dioxide would have reached a toxic level--around five percent--leading to confusion, hyperventilation and death. How long it would take for CO2 to reach five percent would depend on exactly how big the air pocket was. The pocket was reportedly four feet high, but a couple of physicists have argued that the air pocket must have been larger to have kept Okene alive for three days. (Of course, starvation and dehydration could have killed Okene before the CO2 did.)

Okene said he's haunted by his three days trapped underwater, and he isn't sure whether he'll ever go back on the water.

"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," said Okene.

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