Kechi Okwuchi is the phoenix who rose from the ashes, and her story of survival is nothing short of a miracle. A trip home for the holidays turned deadly as Sosoliso Airlines Flight 1145, which was flying from Abuja to Port Harcourt, crash-landed at the Port Harcourt International Airport. Of the 109 passengers, most of whom were students, Kechi was one of only two survivors. The path to recovery was a long and exhausting one, filled with countless hospital visits and over a hundred surgeries. Fate dealt a devastating hand, yet in the face of insurmountable adversity, Kechi reclaimed her life.
With the scars that could only begin to tell the tale of what she’d been through, Kechi stunned the world with her angelic voice during her America’s Got Talent audition. She sailed through round after round, right through to the finals, surpassing even her own expectations. And week after week she won the judges over with her spirit, optimism, and soul touching vocals. She may not have won America’s Got Talent, but she left an indelible imprint on hearts around the world. She continues to share her story with the world and in the process, has inspired us all to go after our dreams and take nothing for granted.
Nearly 12 years later, can you take us back to that day and the moments leading up to the crash?
It was December 10, 2005. I was headed home for holiday. I lived in Nigeria, I’m was born in Nigeria. I was in high school, in twelfth grade, my final grade of high school. We were in a boarding high school that was really far away from where we lived. We were heading back home for Christmas. We lived in the same area of Nigeria. The flight was delayed and after a while, the plane arrived so we boarded the plane. There were 61 students from my school, including me. And other passengers. So the plane had a total of 109 people, including the flight crew. And so we were on the plane and everything was fine. There was no problem. It really was just like normal. There was nothing weird. There was no cause for concern.
Then about like maybe 20 minutes to landing, the turbulence kicked in. It became really exaggerated and just really excessive to the point that it started to make some people panic. A lady in the back kind of screamed and when she did that, that was what kind of jump-started the chaos that erupted in the cabin. And there was a lot of noise. I remember just sitting there kind of just staring out ahead of me, shocked at the scenario. Like never really getting to the point of feeling fear, just like, “Is this really happening?” I mean you see this in the movies. You don’t really see this in real life. Let alone you experiencing yourself.
I looked at my friend who was next to me and she just looked so terrified, and I guess we probably looked the same way. And so then she said, “What’s going on?” And I was like, “I have no idea.” I remember holding her hand, and we just grabbed each other like in a vice grip. There was this really loud like nails to a chalkboard sound in my ears. Then I must’ve blacked out or something because the next thing I remember is opening my eyes in the hospital in South Africa months later and that’s pretty much what happened. I was one of two survivors. It was just the craziest, most random unexpected thing to ever happen. It boggles the mind really. You never plan for that or prepare for something like that.
My mind still struggles to wrap itself around such a life-altering experience. What has the recovery process been like for you?
The recovery process has its levels and its stages. The early stages were naturally the most difficult. It was just a time period of a lot of pain and crying. It changed from the healing scars and a lot of numbness and more pain. Days kind of jumbled together. It was just a really difficult time. The doctors in South Africa basically saved my life, brought me back from the brink. That’s where I got a lot of emergency treatment and skin grafts. They just patched me up and kept me alive. In the moment it seemed like it would never end, like that was just gonna be life as I knew it. But then it got better. You never realize it’s gonna get better. Whether you like it or not, time really does heal however you let it heal. Things got a little better. The pain got less, itching got worse. That was the worst of it. I would take pain any day over the itching. It was just really bad. I got over here and then they gave me this magic prescription of medication that kind of for the first time since the accident happened, actually staved off the itching for hours on end. And it was kind of like a miracle moment for me. I hadn’t had that kind of relief from the itching since the accident had happened. I’m getting back my independence and able to take care of myself and to do things myself. And give my mom a break from doing everything for me. Things just got so much better. I never would’ve imagined that it would get better. It’s been quite the journey.
How did you find the strength to get through everything you’ve been through?
I credit that to my faith and to my mom and my family. I say my faith because prior to the accident, I believed in God but I wasn’t very invested in devoting. So after the accident happened, I was kind of just in this situation where I was relying a lot on my mom and her beliefs. I got to the point where I realized that I had to find what I want to do myself because medication couldn’t take away some pain. For the first time, I tried to develop my relationship with God. And from then, it was very gradual, but it kinda changed my life in a very, very amazing way. I started to draw strength from this otherworldly source that gave me a lot of peace inside. And that was kind of like the foundation for my strength and everything that I was able to do to get myself back up. It’s really like the foundation of everything for me. And second to that would definitely be my mom. She was my rock for a very long time, still is. I do what I do because I want to make her proud, I want to make her happy. And the incredible support that I have from family and friends…I can not stress enough how important it is to have that support system. It’s just really hard for me to comprehend anyone trying to do this alone. All these different factors came together to not just make me who I am but allow me to stay the same despite what had happened.
So fast forward to competing on America’s Got Talent. In your wildest dreams, could you ever have mentioned participating in a show with that kind of audience?
Competing on AGT was something that I did not plan. I have always loved singing. I have a complete pure love for the art, I just love it. But I never would have had the courage to explore it on a show like that or anywhere outside of my Church and my house if my friend hadn’t signed me up for the show. She kinda just did it by herself and was like, “Look at what I did. I’ve sent it in. So they’ll probably call you. If they don’t, oh well. But at least you know.”
Honestly, I have a plan for my life. I was slowly in academia and trying to study and get my degrees and my masters and everything. And so I would’ve been completely content not exploring this music part of my life, even though I loved it so much. Sometimes I didn’t think I was good enough. I didn’t think I was good enough for a show, to be in a competitive environment. I was just shocked at how much people were so receptive of my voice and it felt incredibly validating to hear someone like Simon, who has an ear for music, tell me I was good. That was really a big moment for me. My mom for so long tried to convince me that I had a good voice. Singing in front of all those people was just an amazing, amazing feeling. It just made me feel so accepted and so encouraged.
And it seemed like even though you were all competing against each other, you were also rooting for one another.
We felt this camaraderie with each other. We just kind of all encouraged each other, and I really don’t know how that happened. Cause you can’t force that kind of thing and the people will be able to tell if it’s fake. The closer we got to the end, it wasn’t really about, “Oh my gosh, someone else might take my spot. It was a matter of, “We’re still here! We made it this far! This is so cool!” That was the vibe for most of us. It was just that feeling of, “Oh my God, I made it this far. I didn’t think this would happen.” That was how we felt.
You had so many great moments on the show. What was your favorite moment?
It was when Simon told me, after my judge cut performance, that I had proven that I belong on the show, not just because of my story but because of my talent. Hearing those words from him just really overwhelmed me and just encouraged me in a way that I couldn’t believe. It made me feel like I had earned my spot here. That was my best, best moment. He knew that was very important to me. He knew out of everything, I didn’t wanna be here if I wasn’t good enough to be here. I really appreciated his honesty.
How has being on the show and performing for millions of viewers at home changed you?
When it was done, it gave me a new perspective on how I consider my music. I would’ve never thought about pursuing music professionally, making this my career, trying to release demos and singles and all these kinds of things. It just seemed so far away from me in the past. AGT has definitely brought all those possibilities much closer to me and made them less of a dream and more of a goal, a possibility. It feels achievable because of the show. And I think that’s the biggest gift AGT has given me, to give me the opportunity to take music as seriously as I always dreamed.
What does music mean to you?
Music is my escape. Music is the thing that brings me joy. Music allows me to express myself in ways that I can’t otherwise.
What’s next for you?
I definitely am looking to pursue music now. Music has kind of become less of a side thing and more of what I want to focus on now. Considering that, I want to do everything I can to get my foot out there and to give myself that chance to be able to one day tell people I have a single coming out. I’m working towards that. I have of different amazing projects coming up that will hopefully push me one step closer to my goals.
As a survivor and someone who’s been through the unimaginable, what words of advice do you have that could help someone else get through a tough situation?
What happened to me was just the worst kind of thing that could happen. It was horrible and shocking and just confusing. Grief is something that you can’t control. And the pain usually, in my experience at least, literally goes away. But you never forget. You never completely heal. I do believe that choice comes in where you decide what to do with your grief. Some people are crippled by it and can’t move on. But then some people decide to draw strength from it and to push on. Try to find strength through the grief.