A man survived for nearly three days inside a sunken ship at the bottom of the ocean in one of the most shocking stories of sea survival ever told.
A tugboat with a 12-person crew was navigating choppy waters off the coast of Nigeria in May. At around 4:30 a.m., the boat was towing an oil tanker when a sudden ocean swell or rogue wave slammed into the vessel, snapping the tow rope and sinking the vessel.
When the boat turned over and began to sink, Harrison Okene, the ship's cook, was in the bathroom. The majority of the other crew members were locked in their cabins as a precaution against the pirates who regularly rob and abduct vessels in that area. However, that precaution sealed the fate of the other crew members.
Okene was thrown out of the bathroom in his boxer shorts in the early morning darkness. He told The Nation, "I was dazed, and everything was dark as I was thrown from one end of the small cubicle to the other." Okene, on the other hand, was luckier than his crewmates. None of the passengers survived the ship's sinking because they were asleep inside their cabins.
Okene made his way into the engineers' office, where he discovered a small pocket of air. The boat had turned upside down on the seafloor at a depth of about 100 feet by this point (30 meters). Okene's chances of survival appeared to be near-zero, almost naked, without food or fresh water, in a cold, wet room with a dwindling supply of oxygen.
The Tales of survival
Okene survived, thanks to a series of strange coincidences and incredible luck. Others who have been trapped underwater have similar unbelievable stories of survival in near-impossible circumstances.
Scuba diver Michael Proudfoot was exploring an underwater wreck off the coast of Baja California in 1991 when he smashed his breathing regulator and lost his entire supply of air. Proudfoot is said to have survived for two days on raw sea urchins and a small pot of fresh water after discovering an air pocket.
Okene also discovered a bottle of Coca-Cola and a life vest with two small flashlights attached, in addition to his small pocket of air. But as Okene listened to the sounds of sharks or other fish devouring the bodies of his crewmates, he began to lose hope, he is reported as saying.
The physics of staying alive
The air pocket Okene discovered was only about 4 feet (1.2 meters) high, despite the fact that humans inhale about 350 cubic feet (10 cubic meters) of air every 24 hours.
According to a statement from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), because Okene was under pressure at the ocean floor, physicist and recreational scuba diver Maxim Umansky estimates that Okene's air pocket had been compressed by a factor of about four.
Umansky calculated that if the pressurized air pocket was about 216 cubic feet (6 cubic meters), it would have enough oxygen to keep Okene alive for two and a half days, or 60 hours.
However, there is another danger: carbon dioxide (CO2), which is lethal to humans at levels of about 5%. Okene exhaled carbon dioxide as he breathed, slowly building up levels of the gas in his tiny air chamber.
Water, on the other hand, absorbs carbon dioxide, and by splashing water inside his air pocket, Okene inadvertently increased the water's surface area, increasing CO2 absorption and keeping CO2 levels below the lethal 5% level.
Hypothermia: a slow death
Hypothermia, which occurs when a person's core temperature falls below 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius), was another danger for Okene. Hypothermia can cause confusion, movement disorders, amnesia, and unusual behaviors such as "terminal burrowing," in which a person tries to find a small, enclosed shelter, similar to a hibernating animal.
Extreme hypothermia can eventually lead to death. According to the University of Minnesota, even in water as warm as 60 degrees Fahrenheit (16 degrees Celsius), a person could pass out within two hours.
But luck was on Okene's side once more: he was able to construct a small platform with a mattress that kept him just above the water's edge. If his body had been exposed to the freezing seawater, Okene would have died within a matter of hours.
Looking for bodies
Salvage divers were looking for bodies and had already discovered four when they noticed a human hand motioning to them through an opening in the wreck.
Okene's oxygen supply was running out after about 60 hours underwater. In an LLNL statement, Umansky said, "This man was lucky to survive because a sufficient large amount of trapped air was in his air pocket." "After 60 hours, he was not poisoned by CO2 because it stayed at safe levels, and we can speculate that the ocean water sealing his enclosure helped."
Okene was finally brought to the surface in a decompression chamber by salvage divers after nearly three days of desperately hoping, praying, and reminiscing about family and friends. However, he had no idea how much time had passed.
"I saw the stars in the sky when we came out and thought I must have been in the water all day," Okene told The Nation. "I was told I had spent more than two days in the DCC [decompression chamber] after I left."