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Campus & Community

Minding the miracle

BYUH student says his near-death experience during a hike made him reconsider his purpose in life

Keat Ceci reflecting on his near-death experience.

While hiking through the lush, jagged mountains of the North Shore, Keaton Ceci fell several hundred feet off a mountainside but miraculously survived. While recognizing his life as a miracle, Ceci said he still struggles at times to understand why he was able to survive his fall from a mountain. “It’s hard to understand why certain people get to see miracles and certain people don’t, when I know … more people rely on them. … I just couldn’t understand.” 

Ceci, a senior from Atlanta, Georgia, majoring in business, said he didn’t want it to be over for him that day but explained, “I was comfortable because I knew where I was going. I wasn’t scared.”  

 Ceci said he frequently asked himself the question, “Why am I still here?” and said part of the answer came when lying in his bed speaking on the phone with his mission president, who also once lived through a near-death experience in his life.  

  He said, “I remember asking him, ‘President, out of everything, the hardest thing is I still don’t understand why ... I was able to see a miracle. So many people who deserve it don’t get to.’” Ceci said he remembers his mission president chuckling when he responded by saying he also asked himself the same thing when he too had personally experienced such a profound miracle.  

Ceci said his mission president told him, “There is something more the Lord wants you to accomplish here and something important.” 

Getting lost

Ceci said the day of his near-death experience started out as a routine hiking adventure. Hiking is something he said he loves and does often. But on this day while hiking with others, he said he got lost when he stayed back to take pictures of a waterfall. After several failed attempts searching for a way to his group, Ceci said he made contact with his friend who was on top of the ridge. 

Ceci said he decided to climb up the dangerous mountain side to catch up but had to stop during his climb due to rough, dangerous rocks. He said, “I wasn’t panicking, but I knew there was a problem.” 

Confused and in need of direction, Ceci said he turned to prayer but didn’t feel like he received an answer. With only a few hours of daylight left, he said he recalled something he had always been taught. “I have to put forth some kind of effort. I can’t just sit here and expect something to happen.” He continued, “I tried going left. I tried going right. I tried going up. I [knew that] I can always go down.”  

 He said he started down the mountain but as a couple hours passed, he grew tired, and the mountain grew steeper. Ceci said he realized how serious it had become and called his friend, Christian Wade, who Ceci asked to screenshot his location. 

Wade, a senior majoring in business and supply chain operations from American Samoa, said, “We had so many questions. How did he get there? Is he with people? What does he need? He sounded pretty okay the way he was over the phone. He sounded pretty calm.”  

 Despite Ceci’s calm demeanor over the phone, Mala Tukuafu, from Mesa, Arizona, who was with Wade at the time of the phone call said, “Christian was not going to go to sleep until he could see Keaton face to face.” 

After hours of aching muscles and relying on roots to hold onto, Ceci said he eventually reached a point where he had nowhere to go and was still hundreds of feet above the valley ground. He explained, “There was no logical thinking. Just pure adrenaline and survival mode. [My] only objective is to live.” Ceci said he saw one root and thought if he leapt for it, he could reach the root and continue down. Although it would mean risking his life, he said he knew he had no other option.  

 Up to this point, Ceci said he had prayed several times but expressed his frustration of not feeling that he received any guidance. “I’ve never felt more alone.”

Ceci continued, “At this time, I felt like I was living a good life. I was obedient. So, I was just confused by not getting an answer.” 

Blessed by a miracle  

With no options left, Ceci said he lunged for the only open root. Once he grasped it, the roots snapped, and he said felt himself fall, closed his eyes and fully “expected to wake up on the other side of the veil.”

 “It wasn’t one of those things where you think you’re going to die, I knew it. It wasn’t a question. I was like, ‘This is it’,” Ceci said. “When I opened my eyes in the valley, I was just shocked.” He continued, “I honestly think I was saved by angels.”

After realizing he survived the fall and was not critically injured, Ceci said he knew he had to try to get out, so he began scooting while sitting down in the middle of the rocky valley. 

Ceci walking along a path and reflecting on his purpose in life.

Ceci said when he was in the valley, he heard voices shouting in the mountain, calling for him and he would call back but could not be heard. He also recalled a rescue helicopter shining its lights on the mountain and valley. 

 When he realized that he was unable to be heard or seen, Ceci said he continued scooting on the rocky ground of the valley towards the way out for about four hours. “I was pretty tired and didn’t have a lot of energy, but I had my adrenaline just carrying me.

He continued, “Finally, I see a light in the valley, different from the helicopter light, and it’s followed by a voice.” Ceci said he yelled back and was found by the Search and Rescue Team who hiked him out of the valley on a stretcher with a team of about 10 men.  

Junior Pedron, a junior from Tahiti majoring in art, recalled seeing Ceci in this moment. “He had his ankle in a brace, he was missing a shoe, but we were just super happy he was alive, and they were able to take care of him.” 

Despite falling hundreds of feet, Ceci said he sustained a broken ankle, toes and other injuries that were thought to be non-critical, and was taken to the hospital and discharged several hours later, the same night.

A challenging recovery 

After being discharged from the hospital, Wade said he and Tukuafu drove Ceci home, where Wade said he carried him up the stairs and helped him get around his tight living quarters.

Wade explained, “[Ceci] probably makes it seem like we did a lot but we did what was necessary for him. What anyone would do for their friends.” 

Similarly, Pedron, who Ceci said took care of him during the entirety of his recovery, shared how Ceci’s accident put the priorities in life into focus. Pedron said, “Being faithful to God, putting family first, and serving others all were things that my parents taught me growing up … so it was a big reminder to do those things.”  

From keeping Ceci company and helping him get around to cleansing and bandaging his wounds, Pedron said he never thought twice when it came to supporting and taking care of Ceci. “I didn’t really ask myself if I had to do it. It was just automatic. I consider him my family.” Pedron said neither of them had family on the island and many of their friends had left during that year due to the pandemic. He continued, “We had each other and had to watch each other’s backs.”

The day before surgery, Ceci said he received a blessing, in which Ceci recalled the word “infection” appearing in his mind.

When arriving for pre-op for surgery, Ceci asked the doctors to check his foot, to which he said they realized they had previously stitched over an infection. He said this led them to cancel his surgery for the time being and remove and treat the infected area, otherwise it could spread throughout his body, which could have been potentially fatal.

Ceci explained the news of his surgery being canceled was the hardest part of his whole experience. “I was devastated. I was so confused and thought, ‘How can I survive a mountain but I’m going to die from a freaking infection.’” Pedron said he helped to keep his wound clean and take his antibiotics diligently, but also recognized this moment for Ceci “was more painful than anything.”

Ceci said the Tueller family graciously allowed him to stay at their home during his recovery.

Finding the purpose

After experiencing almost losing one of his closest friends, Wade said he was also reminded of the value of the people in his life. “We all get caught up in life and do things that don’t really benefit your relationships, but one day it could all go away.” Wade emphasized it is crucial to remember what is most important in life. He continued, “Keep your friends and families close … and relationship with God strong.” 

Since this conversation with his mission president, Ceci explained he is still trying to figure out what his purpose is. Laurie Tueller, Laie community member and wife of Administrative Vice President Steve Tueller, said she could tell from his demeanor during his recovery that Ceci was trying to understand “What does God need me to do?” Further she said after such a powerful experience, “you ask yourself, have I done what God has sent me here to do?” 

 Tukuafu reflected on how this experience is a reminder to everyone of their purpose in life. She said, “When you have an experience where you literally are going to meet your maker, it’s so humbling and a great reminder on your purpose and your purpose in life in general. … If you are walking on this earth, you have a purpose here and you don’t need a near-death experience to remind you.”  

 Pedron explained the purpose of people’s lives is the mission of their lives. “There is a reason why everyone is here on earth. I think our mission is to find that. Find the why, why are we here on earth. What is our purpose and what is the purpose of this life?” 

 Wade said after Ceci’s incident, the way Ceci would talk and act was in a way that he knew God kept him alive for a reason. Wade said this was a wake-up call for him as well. He said, “This is a life we take for granted, we are living and we have to make something of ourselves. The way he was thinking influenced the way I thought [and] influenced my testimony and perspective on life."

Moving forward

Along with the significant miracle of surviving a deadly fall, Ceci shared other miracles along the way such as minimal injuries and a quick recovery to walking again. With his miraculous experience constantly in his heart, Ceci said, “I always have in my mind if I’m living the type of life that makes me worthy of a second chance at life.”

Ceci explained he feels his purpose is something he will “realize over time,” fulfilling it through living his life in a way that can have a positive impact on others and “falls in line with the type of person that God wants [him] to be.”

Ceci shared his gratitude for his close friends who took care of him and “didn’t complain once.” He expressed he feels he can pay it forward through serving others in his life. 

While living to find his purpose, Ceci said, “I am trying to never take another moment, with the people I love, for granted and to value the experiences and time I get to have with the people who mean the most to me.”

Ceci climbing up a path as he reflects on his purpose