Photo courtesy University of St. Thomas
Pearland residents Ijeoma (Ije), Zitara (Tara) and Kechi Okwuchi hail from Nigeria. But what brought them to the area is a story that is different than most.
On December 10, 2005 Sosoliso Airlines Flight 1145 carrying 108 souls, 60 of them students from Loyola Jesuit College, crashed at Port Harcourt International Airport in Omagwa, Rivers State, Nigeria. The crash eventually claimed every student’s life, save one: Kechi’s.
The accident occurred during approach to Port Harcourt in adverse weather: wind shear, rain and lightning. Unable to make out the unlit runway through the rain, the captain called for a go around (missed approach) at an altitude of about 200 ft., or approximately 120 ft. above the ground. This call was made about 100 ft. below the “decision altitude.”
The missed approach procedure was carried out incorrectly, and the aircraft struck the ground approximately 70 meters to the left of the runway. It collided heavily with a concrete drainage culvert, disintegrated and caught fire.
Kechi, then 16, initially received treatment in Johannesburg, South Africa, but in 2007, Kechi, Tara and Ije came to the United States to take advantage of treatment at Shriner’s Hospital for Children in Galveston while her father stayed in Nigeria to work.
At age 23, Kechi has had many surgeries, and they are ongoing periodically to this day. She lost 60 of her friends and classmates from Loyola. The pain, both physical and emotional, has been tremendous. However, Kechi has never lost her positive attitude about life. “She doesn’t complain about much,” said Ije. “Our faith in God to bring us through this has never waivered.”
Because of the tragedy, Kechi and her family have been some of the fiercest advocates for airline reform in Nigeria.
In 2012, Dana Flight 992 crashed and killed 153 passengers and 10 people on the ground. Kechi made this statement on the IMO, Nigeria State Blog: “Again, more than a hundred lives are lost in the space of a day. Again, families all over Nigeria mourn the loss of loved ones.
“To all who had family or friends in the Dana plane crash, I offer my most sincere condolences as well as my prayers. I pray that the same God who still helps the families of those who were lost in the Sosoliso plane crash of 2005 will also be there for you all in this time of great sorrow, and that He will send his Spirit to minister peace and comfort to you, while giving you the strength to endure.”
Kechi also had the opportunity to speak out at the “60 Angels Symposium” in Abuja last year, making a video in which she spoke directly to the President of Nigeria. The video may be viewed at https://youtu.be/HGRmIQiaxn4.
This year may have brought Kechi one of her biggest triumphs to date. On May 16, she graduated from St. Thomas University in Houston with a degree in Economics and was tapped to give one of the speeches at her Commencement Ceremony at NRG Arena.
“Now, I know that everyone here has their reasons for pursuing a higher education, and I want to tell you mine,” Kechi said as she addressed her fellow graduates. “You see, 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 ten years ago. It represents the fulfillment of a promise I made, to those students and to their parents, that I would reach this important milestone on behalf of those they lost.
“As a plane crash survivor, I have been through many trials and have had to overcome numerous obstacles in order to make it this far. I could not be here today without help from God and from those around me. I suffered from third-degree burns over 65% of my body, so the healing process has understandably been a slow one, one that continues even now.
“Because of my accident, I had been out of school for so long, from ages 16 to 20, that by the time I was deemed ready to rejoin the student population, I was overeager and overzealous, despite the fact I wasn’t sure at the time what I wanted to do with my second chance at life. But all that time away from school had caused me to forget the struggles that came along with being a student: the rigors of pulling all-nighters for exams and preparing for presentations, all while trying to be responsible in our personal lives and disciplined in our preparation for the outside world.
“Considering this, I had to reflect on the meaning of the term ‘survivor.’ In my reflection, I realized that the struggles of a student are real, and to overcome them all in order to be here today… that word ‘survivor’ undoubtedly applies to us all.
“It was in this reflection, still, that I learned a very important lesson, and that is the fact that one cannot judge the extent of another person’s struggle based on their own experience.
“While I will not underestimate the difficulties I have faced in my journey toward full recovery, I will instead pray that you all join me in surviving all future challenges with the help of God and those around us.”
Kechi received a standing ovation.
For more information about Kechi, visit https://www.facebook.com/KechiOkwuchiTrust.
Ijeoma put her own story in book form in 2012 and called it, “Refined for Rebirth.” It is available on Amazon.com.
Zitara is currently attending Dawson High School and is, “infinitely proud,” of her sister.
Ijeoma and Kechi Okwuchi
Ikeoma, Kechi, Zitara and Ijeoma’s sisters