The weather started getting rough. The tiny ship was tossed. If not for the design of the tugboat’s loo, Harrison Okene would probably not be alive today.
On May 26, 2013, Okene was aboard a tugboat off the shores of Nigeria. The ship was operated by a company called West African Ventures on behalf of oil company Chevon, in support of drilling and exploration efforts. Okene was the ship’s cook and, at 4:30 in the morning, started his day by using the restroom. He’d not get to do much more that day, as the boat, due to what Chevron later called a “sudden ocean swell,” capsized. All twelve members of the crew were missing and assumed dead.
But due to some really interesting physics, Okene survived — for more than two days.
As the boat capsized, Okene was thrown into an officer’s bathroom and found himself trapped there, in complete darkness — but alive. He was trapped, yes, but unlike everyone else on board, he was trapped with a relatively large supply of breathable air. When the ship capsized, the bathroom flipped and acted like a diving bell — a “rigid chamber [first invented in the 1500s] used to transport divers to depth in the ocean,” per Wikipedia. As Slate explained:
Whether in a bell or boat, trapped air rises to the top of a concave chamber. The only way it can escape is by diffusing through the water itself, one molecule at a time. Eventually this would happen, but Okene would have succumbed to thirst, hypothermia, or asphyxiation long before his air bubble diffused into the ocean.
Sixty hours after the ship capsized, Okene was very much alive, albeit in bad shape. The salt water had damaged his tongue, and his skin began to peel away. He was hungry, having not eaten in over two days, and likely traumatized — not only had he just danced with death, but his crew mates were being eaten by the ocean life swimming within the vessel. But he survived.
Rescue divers armed with head-mounted cameras searched the wreck for bodies of the twelve missing people. The head of the recovery effort, a man named Tony Walker, was monitoring the efforts on a TV screen in a rescue boat when, according to a National Post report, he saw a hand appear. (Here’s a screenshot if you’d like to see what it looked like to Walker and team.) Walker recalled thinking that another body had been found and then, when the hand grabbed the diver, everyone in the control room “shot back” in a mix of horror and surprise, unable to fathom that someone was still alive down below.
Okene was brought to the hospital and spent sixty more hours in a compression chamber, allowing his body pressure to adjust. After some further treatment, was released with a clean bill of health, at least physically. He later told Reuters that the events still haunt him — “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.” — and that, understandably, he’ll probably not be returning to work at sea any time soon.
From the Archives: Richard Parker: Guys with the same name, but with different luck than Harrison Okene.
Related: The real Mr. Bubble.