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Published: Friday April 25, 2014 MYT 2:50:00 PM
Updated: Friday April 25, 2014 MYT 6:09:35 PM

Runaway teen survives 5-hour flight as stowaway in plane's wheel well

A teenage boy stowed away on a five-hour flight from California to Hawaii in the wheel well of a passenger jet, and miraculously survived subzero temperatures and near-total oxygen deprivation.

The 15-year-old stowaway, whose name hasn't been released, remained hospitalised on April 22, two days after his death-defying jaunt over the Pacific Ocean, said Kayla Rosenfeld of Hawaii’s Department of Human Services, adding that the teen was “resting comfortably”.

The boy ran away from his home in Santa Clara on April 20 and travelled in the wheel well of a Hawaiian Airlines Boeing 767 on an almost six hour flight from San Jose International Airport to Kahului Airport in Maui, the FBI said.

The teen told investigators that he sneaked into the airport overnight and chose the plane at random, climbing into its rear left wheel well and falling asleep, said FBI Special Agent Tom Simon.

It was unclear how long the boy spent on the plane before take-off, but Simon said it was “enough for him to get a decent night’s sleep”. During the flight, the teen passed out and didn't wake up until an hour after the plane landed. 

Citing law enforcement officials, CNN reported that the teen was trying to travel to Somalia to see his birth mother, who he hasn't seen since he was two. A local CBS-affiliate reported that he was living with his father, stepmum and siblings in Santa Clara, but his birth mother lives in Africa.

The Hawaiian Airlines flight took off at 7:55am Pacific Time, said airline spokeswoman Alison Croyle. San Jose airport spokeswoman Rosemary Barnes couldn't say how long the teen might have spent at the facility before that. No surveillance footage exists of the boy climbing over a security fence at the airport, although footage does show an unidentified person approaching the Hawaiian Airlines plane in the dark, Barnes said.

Transportation Security Administration has deemed the video sensitive security information and prohibited airport officials from releasing it, Barnes said. A TSA spokesman confirmed that, but gave no further details. However, the fact that the teen managed to climb aboard the plane raised concerns about airport security.

The boy quickly lost consciousness as temperatures in the wheel well sank as low as -62°C, Simon said. The FBI added the plane eventually reached an altitude of 12,000m – higher than Mt Everest, which stands at 8,848m – where oxygen is so scarce, breathing would’ve been difficult.

It’s likely that the cold saved his life, according to speculations by perplexed medical experts, who said the chill may have induced his body to go into a hibernation-like state and reduced his need for oxygen.

According to figures from the Federal Aviation Administration, 105 people worldwide have been found to have stowed away on flights since 1947. Eighty of them perished, representing a survival rate of less than 24%. The last known stowaway to walk away from such an ordeal was in 2013, on a domestic flight in Nigeria.

The teen is currently in the custody of the department’s Child Welfare Services division in Hawaii, and officials are working to ensure his safe return to California. The FBI has said that it will probably not press any charges against him. – Reuters

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle, Features, Miracle, US, California, Hawaii, teenager, stowaway, flight, plane, runaway, survive

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