DIVER Chris Lemons lay on the bottom of the North Sea with no oxygen for more than 30 minutes after a routine job went disastrously wrong.
His colleagues went to retrieve his body, believing it was to be for his funeral — until, amazingly, he spluttered back to life.
All it took was a few short breaths of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation for him to return from the dead.
Now, six and a half years on, Chris still cannot believe the miracle turnaround that no one can fully explain.
He said: “Just surviving is remarkable but surviving with no brain damage and unscathed is incredible.
“With nothing to breathe, the brain starts dying quickly. To come through it not only alive but with all my faculties is . . . I cannot understand why.”
Chris’s remarkable story is told in a new nerve-shredding documentary film Last Breath which features actual footage of the dive.
Chris, 39, from Cambridge, achieved his dream of becoming a qualified saturation diver in 2011. This type of diving reduces the chance of decompression sickness by giving divers a combination of helium and oxygen.
They also avoid the need to decompress every day by living for almost a month inside a saturation chamber. It is inside a ship and compressed to the working pressure of the sea floor — nine times greater than the surface.
‘WE LOOKED UP BUT THE DIVING BELL WASN’T THERE’
For 28 days, a team of three divers live in one of these tiny “tin cans”, measuring two metres by two metres.
Each day the three men get into a diving bell which is lowered to the sea floor so they can work six-hour shifts on the rigs which pump thousands of barrels of oil each day.
Two men go into the sea while the third stays in the bell to coordinate the dive. While in saturation, divers earn £1,500 a day.
Chris said: “It is good money but you don’t get paid when you are not working.
“You are working six hours without a break but the hardest part is living in very close confines with two other people for a month.”
September 18, 2012 was another day at the office for Chris and colleagues Dave Yuasa and Duncan Allcock.
With nothing to breathe, the brain starts dying quickly. To come through it not only alive but with all my faculties is . . . I cannot understand why.
A storm raged above, with 40mph winds, when Chris and Dave were lowered 91 metres in the diving bell to replace a pipe on the sea bed at Huntington oil field, 115 miles east of Peterhead, Aberdeenshire.
Attached to the divers were cables called umbilicals which carried everything they needed to stay alive.
Warm fluid was pumped around their suits so they did not freeze in the 3C water. A tube fed oxygen and helium into their masks as well as power for their lights and cameras.
There was also a radio so they could talk to their boat, Bibby Topaz.
But the computer that controlled thrusters to keep the boat in position during the gale had failed.
The Topaz began drifting, dragging the diving bell and Dave and Chris with it.
Chris said: “I heard an alarm going off on the ship. It happens quite a lot so I didn’t think much of it.
“Then Duncan, my supervisor in the diving bell, said: ‘Drop everything — drop your tools and get back.’
“I could tell from the urgency in his voice that it wasn’t a drill.
ROUTINE WORK GOES DISASTROUSLY WRONG
“We hightailed it out. We had no idea what was happening but it was fairly serious.”
It was a race against time as the pair climbed up their cables to get back to safety. Chris said: “As we came to the edge of the structure we looked up expecting to see the diving bell ahead of us but it wasn’t there.
“There was no real panic — just urgency.”
But as Chris climbed, his umbilical became snared on the structure.
Within seconds the line became tight as the ship above drifted away.
He said: “I didn’t have a chance to free it.
“I was being sucked into the structure as the umbilical was tightening. I knew that I was in serious trouble.
“When you are fighting 8,000 tonnes of ship there is only going to be one winner and it wouldn’t have been me.”
Realising something was dreadfully wrong, Dave went back to try to help but the ship dragged him away.
The umbilical stretched, creaked, and in seconds snapped. Chris lost air, warmth and light, leaving him completely helpless on the sea floor — 300ft (91 metres) below the surface.
He said: “Everything went dark. With the pressure released I fell backwards into complete darkness.
“We carry these emergency tanks on our back — bailout bottles — and I instinctively turned them on.
“As soon as that is turned on, you are on the clock. If you are not back in the bell within five or six minutes then you are done for.”
In the pitch black, Chris found the structure he had been working on.
‘MY CHANCES OF SURVIVAL WERE NON-EXISTENT’
He managed to climb ten metres to the top. As he lay there, hoping he would be spotted, Chris came to terms with his impending death.
He felt remorse at the pain it would cause his fiancée Morag, who he was due to marry in five months.
Chris said: “I remember shouting into the sea, ‘I am so sorry, Morag. I am so sorry.’
“There was no sign of anyone to help me or anywhere to go. I knew that I was close to my last breath.
“I had already used most of the gas in my tank. My chances of survival were non-existent.
“Once I resigned myself to the fact I was going to die I was strangely calm. I felt immensely sad.
“I began to realise when the bailout bottle was starting to run out. My breathing got a lot harder and I started thinking, this is the end.
“After that, nothing. I can best describe it as you remember going to sleep last night but not the exact moment you fell asleep.”
Once I resigned myself to the fact I was going to die I was strangely calm. I felt immensely sad.
Above him, the Topaz’s crew were desperately trying to regain control of the ship.
A drone called a remotely operated underwater vehicle — or ROV — was sent out, and it found Chris on the top of the structure. A camera was mounted on the ROV which sent video images of Chris back to his colleagues on the Topaz.
Chris said: “I lay there unconscious for 30 minutes.
“There were 105 people on the boat that had put two people on the sea bed and they were watching a colleague, a friend, dying in front of them. I was twitching for a while and then it stopped. It is harrowing when you watch all 35 minutes of that footage. It is a very, very long time watching someone die.”
Eventually, the crew managed to get the ship positioning system working again and raced back to Chris.
Dave, who had originally tried to go back but had been dragged away by the drifting boat, now returned to the sea bed, but this time believing he would be retrieving a corpse.
In a feat of strength, the lithe and wiry diver grabbed 6ft 5in Chris and climbed up his umbilical to the bell.
Inside, Duncan ripped off Chris’s helmet to blow two short breaths into his lungs — and Chris gasped for air.
It had been 37 minutes after his umbilical snapped and he had been without oxygen for more than half an hour. Chris said: “It is six and a half years ago now and I still think, how on Earth did I survive?
“I had always assumed that it was the extreme cold that saved me.
“You hear about people falling into frozen ponds and they survive because it slows down their bodies.
“But talking to experts, they say that the gas we breathe is relatively high in oxygen compared to what you breathe on the surface.
“It effectively saturated my tissues and cells with oxygen which allowed them to keep functioning.”
Two weeks later, Chris was back diving. And five months after that he married headteacher Morag, 46.
In his speech, with his bride at his side, Chris looked at his friend Duncan and joked: “Morag is one of only two people who have given me a decent kiss.”
- Last Breath (12A) is in cinemas on Friday.
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