Lone Plane Crash Survivor Has An Unexpected Outcome On American’s Got Talent
Kechi Okwuchi, a 29-year-old Nigerian American singer, currently living in Houston, Texas went through a life-altering situation while on her way home from school for Christmas. She never expected that it would lead her down a road where she would ultimately audition for America’s Got Talent.
What was once a past-time became a full-time career for Kechi and her appearance on the show would change not only her life, but also the lives of those who were touched by her incredible story of survival, perseverance, and hope.
Life in Nigeria
Kechi Okwuchi, born on October 29th, 1989, was your average Nigerian girl. She lived with her mother Ijeoma Okwuchi and her younger sister Tara, when she was not attending the Loyola Jesuit College school in another city. When asked about her childhood, she said “I had a fantastic childhood, thanks to my parents. From what my mom and dad tell me, I was a very content and happy kid.”
The only thing that she thought was special about her was her natural singing ability, a hobby which she never really took seriously. Little did she know that her life was going to take an unexpected turn, one which very few people would survive.
Everything Was Going According to Plan
Kechi grew up in the city of Aba, Nigeria, home to more than 2.5 million people. When she was not home or with her cousins in Lagos during the holidays, she attended a reputable boarding school and preparatory college in the Nigerian capital of Abuja.
Although she was still very young, Kechi knew that she wanted to move to England to attend the London School of Economics. She was smart, optimistic, and hardworking and everything seemed like it was going according to plan, but little did she know that things were going to take a turn that would change her life forever.
Home for Christmas
The 16-year old was excited to be going home to spend her Christmas vacation with her friends and family. She hopped on a plane with 60 other school mates who were just as thrilled as she was. In only 90 minutes, they would home, after spending months away at school.
Little did they know they know that many of them were never going to be reunited with their families, an event which traumatized both the boarding school and the country. The Sosoliso Airlines flight would make it to its destination, but not in the way that people expected it to.
Sosoliso Airline Flight 1145
Sosoliso Airline Flight 1145 was a regularly scheduled domestic passenger flight which flew from Abuja and Port Harcourt, both cities in Nigeria. On December 10th, 2005, at approximately 13:08 UTC, the flight crash-landed at the Port Harcourt International Airport.
The single jet airliner which was carrying 109 people, slammed into the airport tarmac and immediately burst into flames. After the crash, seven survivors were recovered from the site and were immediately taken to the hospital. As the days went on, only two of the people who were rescued survived, one of whom was Kechi Okwuchi.
Investigators worked quickly and carefully to examine the plane’s flight-data recorders to find out what could have caused the plane to crash. According to reports, the crash was due to a combination of bad weather and errors made by the pilot.
The FAA’s memo read, “the pilot was reportedly racing a thunderstorm nearing the airport. The inclement weather also forced the pilot to make an instrumental landing – meaning that visibility had been reduced to the point the pilot needed to rely on instruments to make his landing.” The plane slammed onto the grass between the taxiway and the runway, disintegrating and bursting into flames. The crash killed most of the people on board the flight.
Fearing the Worst
In remembering back to the moment when Ijeoma Okwuchi found out that the plane her daughter was on had crashed, she said: “I called my husband, and I said, Kechi’s gone.” She remembers seeing a field of bodies like stones which were just thrown – a sight she says she will never forget.
She also said that while she was waiting for her husband to arrive, someone called her to say “madam, your daughter is alive.” When she saw Kechi for the first time, she said that she was so badly burned, “her skin was in tatters, just hanging off in strips.” The nurses encouraged her to speak to her daughter – something which she did every day. “It’s a miracle, but it’s painful to see her like that,” she said.
A Sad Day for Many
In the days following the accident, many people mourned. Parents, including Valentina Chigbo whose only child had died in the accident, had to find the will power to identify what remained of their children and come to terms with the fact that they were never going to see them again. Because of the conditions of many of the bodies, it was unclear as to their real identities, and there were often disputes over who was who.
The accident happened just a few weeks after a Bellview Airline plane crashed killing 117 people on board. Both airport authorities and firefighting services were criticized for their low response and for how the bodies were handled after the crash. Many people sent in their condolences include Pope Benedict XVI.
Kechi and the other survivors were air-lifted to a hospital Johannesburg, South Africa for treatment. Although they had survived the crash, they were not out of danger. Many of them had burnt over 40 percent of their bodies. One survivor lay on her bed in the intensive care unit, wrapped in bandages with only her face, neck, and toes visible.
While she was in the coma, Kechi’s mother would play her music, a mix of some of her daughter’s favorites, as well as newer songs – some of which she recognized from when she woke up from her coma. Her mom remembers how she used to scream in pain, but there was nothing that she could do.
One of the Only Survivors
Kechi woke up five weeks later. Thinking back to that time, she said: “The first voice I heard was feminine and unfamiliar; it was a nurse, and she kept calling my name, asking me if I could hear her.” Kechi woke up knowing that something terrible had happened and she remembered feeling numb, tired, and having blurry vision.
She later learned that she was one of two people who survived the plane crash. She was also told that 60 students from her boarding school had died in the crash. She said that she was understandably “very depressed” and that “it took a lot to pull her out of that place.”
When asked about what she remembered about the fateful event, Ketchi remembered that fifteen minutes before the plane was supposed to land, the pilot made the announcement that they were nearing their destination and that they would be landing soon. She said “I was sitting in an aisle seat next to my close friend Toke. Suddenly everything seemed different. We were going down way too fast.”
Someone sitting in the back of the plane shouted, “is this plane trying to land?” Ketchi turned to her friend Toki, and the two held hands. She then asked her friend “maybe we should pray?” but before they could start, she remembers hearing a very loud sound. She continued by saying “the next thing I remember was waking up in Milpark Hospital, South Africa. To this day I don’t remember the actual impact of the crash.”
Kechi’s New Reality
Kechi was told that over 65 percent of her body had third-degree burns and that there was a 30 percent chance that she was going to survive. She was also told that she was going to need many reconstructive surgeries and a lot of physical therapy.
In remembering the first time seeing herself after the accident, Kechi said that although everything looked different, she still managed to see Kechi in the mirror. She said “I realized that whatever it was that made me, me had to be more than my physical appearance. My scars do not define me.”
A Long Recovery Process
Kechi had to spend the next seven months living in the hospital, most of that time being in the intensive care unit. While there, she went through surgery after surgery, saying that “that was really my life” and before she was discharged, she underwent more than 100 surgeries.
Not only did she have to rebuild her body, but also her life, as things would never be the way they once were. She has said in countless interviews “music and singing have just been huge, huge therapy,” and “it was a wonderful way to distract myself from the pain and just everything that was going on.”
Discovering Her Faith
Kechi’s views about God and faith completely changed after the accident. Before, she was content with her views that God should be respected and feared. She was happy to see God through her mother’s faith, but life-changing events often cause people to reevaluate their lives, and that is exactly what happened to Kechi.
Much of the free time in the hospital was spent building her own relationship with God. She learned to love the being rather than fear him, and she really understood the power of prayer. She said “there’s truly nothing like prayer. It reinforces faith, which gives you courage. It calms you when things get really hard to deal with. If there’s one thing I learned through this experience, it’s the value of faith.”
The Importance of a Support System
Kechi’s family played an integral role in her road to recovery. She knows the toll that her situation took on her family, but she attributes her optimism to them. She said “The glass is always half-full with them, and I take pride in and strength from that fact. We have always been very close, but this entire experience brought us even closer, to each other and to God.”
She also spoke about her friends who kept her “grounded” and never treated her differently. For some of them, the first interaction after the accident was a bit awkward, but with minutes of talking, they realized that “it’s the same stupid Kechi.”
A Second Chance
Kechi was still recovering, but she said that she felt a duty to honor her mother and father, as well as her classmates who lost their lives on the Sosoliso Airways Flight 1145.
Despite being covered with scars and being in constant pain, Kechi never saw them as a deformity or hindrance. They reminded her of what she had been through, and how fortunate she was to have survived such a horrific event. She had been given a new opportunity and a second chance, something she would never take for granted.
A New Beginning
Kechi’s accident occurred in December 2005, and for the next year and a few months, she spent her time recovering. With everything going on, Kechi needed surgery that could only be done in the United States.
In 2007, Kechi was transferred to the Shriners Hospital for Children in Galveston, Texas, for reconstructive surgery. She, along with her mother, father, and younger sister, made the almost 14-hour journey to the other side of the world. As the years passed, she continued to receive treatment, and she was finally well enough to pick up where she left off.
The Stares and the Questions
More than 65 percent of Kechi’s body had been burned, and she had also gone through over 100 reconstructive surgeries. It left her looking much different from the girl that she once was. To this day she says, “I always get those awkward stares,” but she never saw it as an issue. Kechi said that if the roles were reversed and if she saw a person walking past her with significant burns on their body, she would want to look because it is “human nature to be curious.”
She had no problem telling anyone who asked her about her situation what happened. She said, “I guess it’s safe to say that my positive attitude makes it easier for others to treat me normal, which is something I greatly appreciate.”
The Pressure to do Well
As one of the only survivors of the Sosoliso Airways Flight 1145 plane crash, many people put pressure on Kechi to “make it” in life, whether they meant to or not. Some saw her survival as a sign that she was destined for greatness – and that she was, even though she did not know it yet.
Despite having people breathe down her neck to see what she was going to do next, she had said that she already put a lot of pressure on herself to be better and to show others that she could do and deal with things just like any other person.
Not What She Planned
When Kechi moved to the United States in order to finish her treatment, she was in the middle of grade 12. She had plans, and they included attending the London School of Economics (LSE), not moving to the U.S.
When asked about making to move to Texas, she said: “coming to America was never in my plan, I had reasons to go to London. I have family there, and the LSE is a prestigious school, but once I decided to stay in America and I felt like I was ready to go back to school, I applied to the University of Houston, the University of St. Thomas, and Rice University.”
Finishing What She Started
At the time of her accident, Kechi was a 16-year-old high school student, but she always had dreams of finishing what she started. In 2009, she went back to high school after which enrolling at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. When asked why she chose UST, she said that there was something about the school that made her feel comfortable. She said, “to be honest, it even looks like my old school, and I’ve missed that.”
Ms. Okwuchi who was now an economics major, stood out among her peers for more than just obvious reasons. The associate professor of the economics department, Dr. Roger Morefield said, “Kechi is the kind of student every professor hopes to have in their class – her work ethic is magnificent.” She’s been through a lot, but her attitude is just so positive, and she’s an ideal student…” he continued.
Blooming as She Should
Kechi was always a very smart young woman, attending one of the most prestigious schools when she lived in Nigeria. Now in a new environment at a different school, with people that she did not know, Kechi did one of the only things she knew how to…thrive.
She became involved in many different groups and activities going on at the University campus. She became involved with the International Students Association, the Celts Breakfast Club, and the Cameron School of Business. She also took part in job fairs and attended seminars both on and off campus, but that wasn’t all. She also began to tutor writing and economics in the spring of 2014.
A Gift to the 60 Students
In 2015, she graduated Summa Cum Laude with a bachelor’s degree in economics, and she also had a minor in marketing. Kechi applied to be the university’s commencement speaker, and she got it. Kechi used her speech to remember the classmates she lost in that fateful day in 2005.
Kechi had this to say, “to me, this degree is not just a degree. It is a gift to the 60 students that died in a plane crash I was in 10 years ago. It represents the fulfillment of a promise I made—to those students and their parents—that I would reach this important milestone on behalf of those they lost.”
Doing What She Loves
All during her recovery process and during the time that she attended school, Kechi continued to do what she loved – sing. Her father purchased a karaoke machine for her which she used almost every day. She began to sing with her child-life specialist, which helped her to get through the pain of physical therapy and surgery.
She often told herself “despite how painful this is, after this, you get to go spend an hour singing and playing instruments.” She would later perform at her local church, at different galas and family events, as well as fundraisers for burn and trauma victims.
America’s Got Talent: The Beginning
Kechi’s mom said that she always wanted to audition for America’s Got Talent, but her journey didn’t begin until her friend secretly signed her up for the insanely popular reality talent competition. When producers called to let her know that they were very much interested in her talent and her story, she was surprised, but never did she for one second question whether she was going to take part.
In an interview on the show’s digital exclusive, she said that “she “never would have done this if it were not for her [friend].” She went on to say, “from that moment, everything changed.”
America’s Got Talent: Season 12 – An Audition to Remember
Hesitating for a few seconds, Kechi shared her incredible story with the judges and the audience. They sympathized with her, and it was then time to sing. For her audition, Kechi sang a rendition of the Ed Sheeran’s hit “Thinking Out Loud.”
By the end of the performance, all four judges and the entire audience were on their feet. All of the judges had very kind and encouraging things to say about the singer, and by the end of it, Kechi earned four yeses from all of the judges and millions more from the people who tuned in.
America’s Got Talent: Season 12 – The Rest of the Competition
The next time that viewers saw Kechi was in the next round where special guest judge, Seal was added to the judges’ panel. She sang Donny Hathaway’s “A Song for You,” and just like her audition, she received a standing ovation from all the judges and the audience.
Kechi made it all the way to the finals of the competition, singing Estelle’s ‘Conqueror.’ For the third time in a row, she received a standing ovation. She did not win the competition, but she still took time to thank her supporters, and she also thanked the AGT wardrobe team for making her feel like “a real-life Disney princess.”
After appearing on the television talent show, nothing could prepare Kechi for what was about to happen. She said “before, the most public thing I did was sing in church.” Her story was being told on many shows and in different magazines including The Today Show, People Magazine, Access Hollywood, Inside Edition, among many others.
Her Instagram followers went from a couple hundred to more than over 100,000. She may not have won the competition, but she won over the hearts of many Americans. When asked about how her life had changed, she said: “if I didn’t have the videos to prove it, I would not believe it.” I would think it was a dream.”
A Dream Realized
Kechi always enjoyed singing, something she did in at home and her local church. It was only after she appeared on the show, that her dream of being a singer while motivating others was fully realized. She said “Most people want me to speak and also sing. That I get to go both, which I’m passionate about, is an honor and a joy.”
The bookings and opportunities just kept on coming, and soon she was traveling all across the country to do what she loved. She said, “I came on the show at a time when people needed to see such a positive message … when that message was needed. To see someone look so different than the TV ideal of perfection was jarring to people — in a good way.”
A Special Bond with One of the Judges
From the moment that she appeared on stage, Kechi began to grow on tough-talking America’s Got Talent judge, Simon Cowell. When he asked her “Why America’s Got Talent?” She responded by saying “I want to share my voice,” and as the show went on, they developed a special bond that rarely happens on the show.
The mogul has even told her: “I’m glad you trusted us with the show, and I’m thrilled that through the show you’re getting everything you deserve. You changed our show, and I’m glad we’ve now become friends, and you know I love you because I really do.”
The Surgery of a Lifetime
Even after all of the reconstructive surgery that she had, Kechi was still feeling pain from her scars. The producers from the show “Extra” teamed up with a medical team including Dr. Peter Grossman, the director of the Grossman Burn Centers, Dr. Andrew Frankel, a Beverly Hills plastic and reconstructive surgeon as well as Laura Sharpe of Artists for Trauma.
About her ongoing health problems, she said that one of her eyes does not close completely and that on one of her ears, she does not have a lobe. She also talked about not being able to straighten her arms, but the biggest issue was her neck. After 4 hours of surgery, not only was Kechi able to close her eyes, she could also turn her neck, and Dr. Frankel also made her cheeks symmetrical.
What Has Kechi Been Up To?
To date, Kechi has had over 120 surgeries, and there are more in her future. She became an inspirational speaker to many, and she also became a burn survivor advocate for different organizations around the country, including Shriners Burn Hospital – where she was treated.
The most significant thing to have happened is that Kechi now had a way for her music to reach more people, more than she ever thought possible. Kechi was traveling across the country to spread her message and share her voice. Kechi was now an MBA student, but she was also a traveling artist.
Her First Single
A week before she released her first song, she went onto Twitter to make the big announcement to her 25,000 + followers. In the video, she said “I’m going to be releasing my debut single ‘Don’t You Dare,’” she continued “I’m really excited…I cannot wait.”
On June 13th, 2018, Kechi released her first single “Don’t You Dare.” The song which is available on all music platforms including iTunes and Spotify was written by two songwriters who watched Kechi on America’s Got Talent. Inspired by her journey, they worked with her to release the final product. She also said that “it has a message that I truly believe in.”
America’s Got Talent: The Champions
In December 2018, America’s Got Talent announced that they were going to have a special edition of their famed talent show entitled “AGT: The Champions.” Past winners, fan favorites, and other memorable contestants from around the world would be invited back to win the coveted title and a cash prize of $25,000.
Many familiar faces were invited back. Apart from Kechi, some of the other contestants who were announced to be on the show included singer Susan Boyle – the 2009 Britain’s Got Talent runner-up, mentalists The Clairvoyants -the 2015 runner up of America’s Got Talent, and magician Shin Lim, the 2018 America’s Got Talent winner and the act who took the title of AGT: Champion.
A New Premise
The show premiered on January 7th, 2019 and for the first five weeks, ten contestants would compete for two spots; one of which would be as a result from a golden buzzer, and the other would be selected by voters from the 50 states. Simon Cowell, Heidi Klum, Mel B, and Howie Mandel were brought back to judge the show, and actor Terri Crews was hired as the host.
Unlike in previous seasons where each judge could use their golden buzzer for any act, in this spin-off, each judge was given an episode to use their buzzer. Mel – week 1, Heidi – week 2, Howie – week 3, Simon – week 4, and host Terri – week 5.
Let’s Try This Again
Kechi’s life seemed to be filled with second chances – a second chance at life after being in a deadly plane crash, and now, a second chance at winning the talent show she previously appeared on. She wrote on an Instagram post “Going on #AGTChampions was, for me, a chance to show the world a Kechi that has grown more confident in her voice since 2017.”
She appeared on week 4’s episode of the new Champions spin-off which aired on January 28th, 2019. Kechi was accompanied by many familiar faces, including Tape Face, Brian Justin Crum, and past winners Paul Zerdin and Kenichi Ebina.
The Golden Buzzer
Being invited back, Kechi knew that she would have to impress, especially since she would not be the only familiar face returning to fight for the title. Prepared to fight for the spot, Kechi came back with a vengeance, singing a cover of “You Are the Reason” by Calum Scott.
Kechi received rave reviews for her performance from some of the judges, but Mel B. said: “the song lost you a little bit.” Simon Cowell said “Based on what I’ve seen tonight, I’m gonna be honest with you, I didn’t really like it that much,” a comment which shocked the crowd. “I actually loved it!” the judge continued. Before anyone could say anything, Simon jumped out his seat to press the golden buzzer -sending Kechi straight to the finals.
The Rest of the Competition
She wrote on her Instagram “Guys, I’ll never forget how I felt in this moment, the shock, the confusion, the disbelief and the sheer JOY.” When asked about Mel B’s comments she said “I always appreciate honesty,” she said. “That’s the best way to grow as an artist. So, thank you.”
Kechi made it all the way to the finals of the competition but like in her previous season, she did not win, but she was extremely happy for having an amazing experience. She wrote on her Instagram “Thank you again for everything…for an unrivaled experience on #AGTChampions!…It’s hard to feel like anything but a winner when you’re surrounded by the kind talent I was amongst.”
Post America’s Got Talent
After the competition, just like the first time that Kechi competed, the media and the general public wanted to know more about Kechi. They wanted to know what she was up to, where she was in her career, and if she was in a relationship.
The opportunities just kept on coming, and she became the national spokesperson for Shriners Hospital for Children. She’s performed as the keynote speaker, hosted shows, and she has also stayed in touch with many of the contestants on the show.
What is Kechi Up to Now?
Kechi is currently traveling around the country singing and inspiring people with her story. On her list of upcoming events are the Shriners Burn Hospital where she was treated, the Moroccan Shrine Center, and the 3rd Annual Intelligence and Talented Girl Conference.
When she’s not busy traveling, she is perusing her master’s degree in Economics at the University of St. Thomas – where she earned her bachelor’s degree. Kechi, unlike many people, is living her dream, something which made both her family and friends proud.
Kechi once said that no matter what happens to her, she believes that it happens for a reason. She also said that she will always make the most out of whatever situation she finds herself in.
She also has advice for people, she once said at her graduation ceremony “you’re still alive; you’re still here for a reason.” She continued by saying “there’s a certain fear in the unknown that we will all face…, but all those times we felt like it was the end, we made it through.” She also said that “there’s no reason why the next situation should break us. We’ve come this far, and we can definitely go further.”