After a near-death experience almost 20 years ago, Kevin Key says he’s learned the key to life, and it isn’t money or fame or fretting about what happened two decades ago.
In fact, now he is grateful for his new attitude about life that began when his friend and co-worker died in an avalanche of dirt at their workplace and he was buried up to his chest with only his head and one arm free.
“Every so often, I do still think about it,” he said recently. “So I just think about that I’m grateful because it really changed my outlook on life because I know that any day something could happen and I would no longer be here.”
On that fateful day, he and Kenneth Poch, who was 40-year-old at the time, were working in a trench as temporary workers for a Virginia-based company.
The two were alone in an 11-foot deep trench when a wall on the north end of the trench caved in.
Key said the two men were in the hole about five to 10 minutes before he saw the dirt wall coming out of the corner of his eye. He estimated at the time that the wall was about eight-feet tall. While he was trapped, he heard his co-worker, who was completely buried, screaming for help. He also began to yell, but no one came.
When Poch’s screams stopped, Kay began to pray and then decided that his only chance for survival was to dig himself out.
In about 20 to 30 minutes, he finally freed one leg. Then he dug and wiggled until he was able to free himself and climb out of the hole.
The New Jersey native had moved to Conway about six years before the incident. Since then he has moved to Myrtle Beach, but he still worships at Damascus Baptist Church when the church holds live services.
Since then Key says he’s had some losses and some gains. He counts the deaths of his mother, father and wife as losses, and the birth of a great-grandchild and working at a job he loves as his gains.
Before the accident, he said, he was casual about just being alive. No longer!
“Nowadays, I’m grateful for my family, my work and what I do, and I need to share my story. I usually share it because people look at me and say, why do I have a different outlook on life and I tell them my experience with the accident and then they kind of realize why.
“Well, my theme was working with people. That became stronger and I said, ‘If I can get through this I can get through anything.’ And I became stronger because of my faith in God. That started changing shortly after my accident,” he said.
His recovery did take some time and some counseling at the Waccamaw Mental Health Center.
The accident happened in 2002 and he didn’t go back to work until 2005. He says he was “kind of back on track” by 2006 or 2007.
“My children is the main thing that kept me going. My children. My family,” he said.
After losing his mom, dad and wife he says he understands better the uncertainty of life and the inevitability of death.
Shortly after his frightening experience he also faced some financial problems. He wasn’t able to work and the workers compensation payments he received weren’t nearly as much as his pay as a construction worker. He did eventually get a $60,000 payment.
But, he said, “The money, it still didn’t erase everything that happened.”
“But I overcame the financial stress I had and now I’m pretty much caught up with them, and I’ve living a lot better now,” he said.
He says he just sort of figured things out for himself.
“My story also gives me inspiration to go on and try harder and to keep up with balance, with life and my family,” he said, pointing to things like paying his bills and spending time with his family.
“I’m more sincere about it because I understand that one day it could all end. So while I’m here I try to be productive and I don’t stress as much because I got a better understanding. Like I say, everything in life happens for a reason. I kind of know better now that it does,” he said.
For the past eight years, Key has worked as a mental health technician at the Lighthouse Behavioral Health Hospital where he cares for patients, making sure they’re fed and clean.
Working there gives him a good feeling that he might make a difference in someone’s life.
“I think that job was a perfect job for me…I try to reach out to each patient to the best of my ability. I’m really grateful for my job and I go to work everyday loving to be there…It makes a difference. I think the Lighthouse is a very good place for me,” he said.
He said he gets the opportunity to tell his story there about once or twice a month.
He begins recently by telling people that he’s coming up on his 20-year anniversary.
“Then, I tell them my story and they really enjoy it and everybody go, ‘Wow’, and I tell them I had a friend who didn’t make it so when I think of that and my accident I feel good when I tell them. They appreciate the story and they ask me questions, and it helps them,” he said.
He believes he is more understanding now and says his children, two daughters and one son, have all taken note of the changes they’ve seen in him.
“They know I’m different; more positive, more understanding, and people often say that I can’t tell when you’re upset or mad because I don’t show negative feelings, and I get along with everybody...I have no enemies,” he said.
Since his accident he has picked up photography as a hobby because he likes making memories. He tells people to be sure to take large group pictures when families gather, when someone gets married or a baby takes its first steps.
He doesn’t charge for his pictures; he just takes them because he likes memories.
“They say a picture is worth a thousand word, but I feel that it’s worth more,” he said.
He says Poch was a hard worker and he still misses him.
His current philosophy about life comes down to one truism.
“It easily could have been me, me dying and him surviving,” he said.
That’s what makes him sure that the accident was meant to happen.
“I never think of it as a negative thing that happened. It’s a heart opener, an eye opener when you have a near-death experience,” he said.