National Geographic Daily News

Tanya Basu

National Geographic

Published December 4, 2013

How did a man trapped in the depths of the sea survive for three days in conditions that surely should have killed him?

Turns out that an air bubble was Harrison Okene's savior.

The Nigerian man had been lost at sea after his tugboat, the AHT Jascon-4, suddenly capsized and sank 100 feet below the surface of the ocean. Okene, a cook, was trapped in a four-foot bathroom with no way to signal for help, no food, no water—nothing, for three long days.

His miraculous survival was filmed six months ago by rescuing divers who had come to collect bodies and instead saw Okene's desperate, outreached hand seeking help. This week, the video has gone viral, bringing international attention to the power of an air bubble.

So how'd that bubble last so long?

Eric Hexdall, a nurse and clinical director of diving medicine at the Duke Center for Hyperbaric Medicine and Environmental Physiology, estimates that in an area of about 13.5 cubic meters—roughly the size of the air bubble Okene was trapped in—a person has about 56 hours before carbon dioxide toxicity sets in.

"If you're trapped in something like that, your carbon dioxide levels will build to a toxic level before you use up the oxygen," Hexdall said, emphasizing that carbon dioxide would be the first problem Okene would have faced, before running out of oxygen.

In addition to Okene creating more trapped carbon dioxide in the course of normal breathing, there is more carbon dioxide under water than on land.

Hexdall said that there are stages of deep sea carbon dioxide toxicity.

"At 50,000 parts per million [of carbon dioxide particles], you see measurable signs of toxicity," Hexdall said, referring to a "buzz" or "high" a person would experience. "At 70,000 parts per million, you lose consciousness pretty rapidly."

Hexdall estimates that Okene began to experience the first symptoms of carbon dioxide toxicity after about 56 hours.

"It wouldn't have necessarily poisoned him," Hexdall said. "It would have taken about 79 hours for him to be unconscious from carbon dioxide."

Okene was rescued after 60 hours of being trapped—right in the window for survival.

Threat of Air Pressure

Okene also managed to elude the threat of high air pressure, which can be deadly under water.

Under increased air pressure, human blood becomes saturated with nitrogen—Okene's nitrogen levels during his ordeal were much higher than ours on the Earth's surface.

Diving deep can bring on "nitrogen narcosis"—when under more than 80 feet of water, a swimmer can become dazed from the overwhelming levels of nitrogen.

Then there's the problem of decompressing to surface air pressure after rescue.

"He can't come back to the surface immediately," said Petar Denoble, vice president of research at the Divers Alert Network. "If he did, he would die."

To get Okene and the divers who saved him back to normal pressure levels, the group had to enter a diving bell, also known as a transfer capsule.

According to Denoble, this vessel would have been "at the same pressure as the bottom of the ocean," allowing for the group to be transported to the surface while maintaining the pressure of the original location.

From the diving bell, Hexdall said Okene and the rescue team probably "[crawled] through a tunnel where it is warm and dry," entering a decompression chamber. This chamber allows people to gradually adjust to normal pressure levels.

Regardless of the science, Hexdall said Okene was lucky to have survived his ordeal: "I don't know what it was—it was divine providence."

Follow Tanya Basu on Twitter.

32 comments
Jochen A. Hübener
Jochen A. Hübener

"Many of life's failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up." (Thomas Edison, von Bear Grylls mitgeteilt)

Nicole Small
Nicole Small

This is the least scientific 'scientific' article I have ever read. 'Divine providence?' an extremely poor description of Nitrogen Narcosis? And, of course, my favorite; the man was trapped underwater with 'no water.' I think you mean no drinkable water. He certainly had plenty of water! For shame, National Geographic.

Peter Hamm
Peter Hamm

That certainly offers perspective to an individuals life

José Iglesias Navarro
José Iglesias Navarro

Increíble, todos los días se aprende algo nuevo, pero ésta situación, en mi opinión, creo que contó con un milagro!!!

Pritheesh Mallya
Pritheesh Mallya

This teaches us to keep hope til the last breath. Bravo Okene.

Nagarjun Reddy
Nagarjun Reddy

An esteem courage,hopeshown by this man and god never let his hopes down.....!!!

Sasi Jayaram
Sasi Jayaram

Oh  this man taught us a great lesson. Never lose hope & its a rope that swings through life. 

Melinda Mills
Melinda Mills

Man has yet to learn about several things including events such as the one above. Seems his prayers were answered also.

Cheryl Morel
Cheryl Morel

Wonderful to read this and a big THUMBS UP to the rescuing divers for there wonderful work and good luck to Okene.  Thanks for sharing

Carrie Stewart
Carrie Stewart

I bet there was a lot of prayer involved! Awesome story

Biju Toha
Biju Toha

That was a Magical journey . Occasionally, this type of news make us surprised. I think that is the miracle from Allah . 


Thanks to NG.

Carol Manka
Carol Manka

Part of the miracle here is a huge credit to Okene that he didn't let his emotions ramp into a panic that might have expedited using up oxygen faster.  I agree with all of the comments that his purpose in living on this earth has yet to be fulfilled.

James Robledo
James Robledo

Good thing he wasn't 'trapped' in the 'tiny' Vatican Archives with Tom Hanks in Angels & Demons.......LOL

Kevin S.
Kevin S.

He must have some other greater purpose on this planet! it is amazing how a feat like this can happen. The power of the human body is so great!

Anlia Stewart Bolinger
Anlia Stewart Bolinger

Sometimes it is a mixture of the amazing power of the human spirit as well as what our bodies can handle, add an ton of luck anything can happen! 

Ricardo Tajonar
Ricardo Tajonar

HIS MISSION IN LIFE HAS NOT BEEN FINISHED. UNBELIEVABLE.

Eric Nesvick
Eric Nesvick

Please correct your information regarding nitrogen narcosis and DCS. The issue is not nitrogen in the water, its nitrogen in the air being breathed that dissolves in the blood stream. In the raw video the likely put him on a helium-oxygen mix based on the "donald duck" voice to help start the process of displacing the dissolved nitrogen in his blood stream while they extracted him from the wreck. As that was insufficient to fully displace the nitrogen the man had to be put in a decompression chamber for a few days.

 What puzzles me is how he survived being in such cold water for that long since he had no exposure protection on.

Roger Bird
Roger Bird

The scientists only gave us the limits of what is possible and why.  They did not tell us how Harrison Okene survived.  They also did not explain how he survived the cold for so long.

Tanya Basu
Tanya Basu

@Eric Nesvick Thank you for your comment. I've edited the section to make sure it is clear that nitrogen in the air that is being breathed is dangerous and not the nitrogen in the water. You are correct: the divers and Okene were probably put on heliox, or a helium-oxygen mix, to avoid the effects of nitrogen narcosis.

Kathy Young
Kathy Young

@Tanya Basu @Eric Nesvick It's not the narcosis that is the problem, it is the nitrogen in the blood. Nitrogen narcosis is like being drunk or high. Your judgement is impaired and that is why it is so dangerous for divers. Narced divers make decisions that are not consistent with safe diving practices, or can pass out at depth (usually much deeper than 100 ft). However, narcosis itself is completely reversible by ascending to a shallower depth and does not cause death. All advanced divers would have experienced nitrogen narcosis during their dive training - on purpose. It's important to recognize the symptoms while diving.


What was imminently dangerous to this man is the nitrogen in his blood from breathing compressed air. That is what causes DCS, more commonly known as the bends. That is very dangerous and the reason this man needed to spend time in a decompression chamber to off gas. Had he been brought to the surface, or managed to escape a day or two into his ordeal and swim to the surface, that would most certainly have killed him.


The heliox mix was probably used because that was what was available and used also to prevent more nitrogen from being absorbed into the blood. A few more minutes of breathing air at that depth would not have put that much more nitrogen load in this man's blood. His load would already be off the charts.


I am not a scientist, nor an expert, but as an avid scuba diver, this is basic knowledge for safe diving.

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