NEW YORK — On December 10, 2005, Kechi Okwuchi was a 16-year-old high school senior in Nigeria, about to experience a trauma that would change her life.
On that day, Okwuchi and sixty of her classmates boarded a plane to head home for Christmas from their boarding school. It’s a flight they took at the beginning and end of every semester. There were a total of 109 people onboard including the flight crew. According to Okwuchi, everything about the flight was normal except for one thing — her seat.
For this particular trip, Okwuchi’s mother had booked her an aisle instead of her preferred window seat.
“I remember being mad at my mom for not booking a window seat and being like ‘I’m going to give her a lot of stress about this,'” she said.
The mood aboard the flight, however, started to change about 15 to 20 minutes before their descent. Okwuchi said she remembers that’s when the turbulence started.
“We didn’t think anything about the turbulence at first. But then it got really exaggerated. A woman in the back of the plane, she kind of screamed and that got everyone panicking and shouting,” she said.
Okwuchi’s memory of what happened next is limited.
“I remember holding my friend’s hand and then hearing this loud scraping sound like nails on the chalkboard. My next vivid memory is opening my eyes in the hospital bed in South Africa five weeks later.”
Okwuchi was aboard Sosoliso Airlines Flight 1145 that crashed, killing 107 people on board. She was one of only two survivors. All of her classmates perished, leaving her the lone student survivor.
She was alive but didn’t escape the crash unscathed.
“When I opened my eyes I was numb everywhere. I remember hearing my mom’s voice and she told me ‘Kechi, you were in a plane crash, but you’re going to be fine.’ I knew that I was badly injured,” she said.
Okwuchi had third degree burns over 65% of her body and arrived at the hospital with a 30% chance of survival, she recalled. She spent the next four months in the ICU and then three more months at the hospital in what she calls her “patchwork era” because “they were just patching me together and keeping me alive.”
During her long recovery, two things kept Okwuchi company: her mom and music. While she was in a medically induced coma, her mom would sit by her bedside and sing to her, she remembers. When her mom had to leave, she would put on CDs from Okwuchi’s favorite bands.
“Music was such a huge part of my healing. I woke up knowing songs that I didn’t know before the accident. It became this source of joy for me and a distraction from the pain and itching that comes from the healing scars,” she said.
And as she recovered, she noticed something different in her voice.
“The first time I opened my mouth and started singing, my mom looked at me and said, ‘Have you always sounded this way?’ I had no clue what happened but my voice had changed significantly after the accident,” Okwuchi said, adding, “I could sing more confidently. I was just happy that I had this one good thing that had come out of this horrible tragedy.”
Stepping into the spotlight
Okwuchi still had a long road ahead of her. After seven months in the hospital in South Africa, she headed home to Nigeria. In 2007 she and her family moved to Galveston, Texas to be near Shriners Hospitals for Children where she planned to have additional reconstructive surgery. Since the accident, she says she’s undergone at least 100 surgeries, most recently in February. She credits the hospital for playing a big role in her medical recovery but also for helping her find her voice.
“Shriners was the first place I performed for anyone other than my family. It was very scary. My heart was pounding, but the kids made it fun. It was my first taste of performing. Prior to that I’d never considered this is actually something that would be cool to do,” she remembers.
One of her friends, however, thought she was ready for a bigger stage and applied for her to audition for the TV talent competition “America’s Got Talent.” In 2017, she appeared on the show and made it all the way to the finals by impressing millions of viewers and the shows judges including Simon Cowell. It was an opportunity that she says changed the course of her life.
“‘America’s Got Talent’ has been one of the most amazing things that has happened to me in my life. My career path since being on the show has changed dramatically,” she said.
Since then, she’s sung the National Anthem at sporting events, performed all over the US, South Korea and even back in her home country of Nigeria. But she says the thing that means the most to her is being able to share her life mantra with fellow burn and trauma survivors: Your scars do not define you.
“Before the accident I was very vain and into my looks. I remember the first time seeing my reflection after the accident and it was completely different from the last time I saw myself. But I could still see Kechi. That was the most significant moment in my entire life,” she said.
Finding success, happiness and life after trauma is the tune of hope that she’s now looking to share with everyone she meets.