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Stowaway Recovering From Ordeal at 38,000 Feet

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A stowaway who survived a freezing, 7 1/2-hour flight in the wheel well of a jetliner traveling to Los Angeles from French Polynesia was recovering from his ordeal, authorities said Friday.

Doctors said the man was suffering from “very severe hypothermia” with a core body temperature of 79 degrees when he arrived in serious condition at UCLA Medical Center. A body temperature below 85 degrees is normally fatal, according to experts.

After he spent a night under heat lamps and special blankets, the man’s condition was upgraded to good by midday Friday.

“It’s pretty amazing he lived,” said David Langness, a medical center spokesman.

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“At 38,000 feet it’s about 50 below zero, not counting the wind chill factor. Usually in a case like this the plane lands and a body drops out of the wheel well.”

The man was pulled from the left main wheel well of an Air France 474-400 jumbo jet after airline maintenance workers spotted him there around 8 p.m. Thursday.

Spattered with oil from the landing gear and with his clothes ripped to shreds by wind, the man had to be forcibly placed on a stretcher by Los Angeles firefighters and paramedics called to the Tom Bradley International Terminal.

The man, believed to be a Tahitian in his late 20s, was still not talking about his trans-Pacific trip, officials at the UCLA Medical Center said.

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Air France officials said they are investigating how the man could have entered the wheel well while the jetliner was at Papeete, French Polynesia. Papeete is about 3,700 miles from Los Angeles.

“The authorities in both Tahiti and there in Los Angeles are looking at how he managed to skirt security,” said Dean Breest, a spokesman for Air France. “We’ll have to wait and talk with him about how he did it.”

Breest said Air France personnel are convinced that the man made the trip in the wheel well, which is not heated or pressurized.

Officials of Boeing Aircraft, the plane’s manufacturer, said the 747’s wheel wells are not connected with the aircraft’s pressurized cargo areas. They said they know of no other incident in which a person has tried to stow away in a 747’s landing gear.

“It’s a long-range plane” that cruises at high elevations--a plane most stowaways would shy away from, said Gary Lesser, a Boeing spokesman. “Obviously this is not what wheel wells were made for. But we’re happy he survived.”

Authorities at Los Angeles International Airport said Air France’s Flight 71 landed at about 7:45 p.m. and taxied to the Tom Bradley terminal for a brief stopover. Headed for Paris, it resumed its flight about 9:30 p.m.

Firefighters said the stowaway was thrashing about as they removed him from the wheel well. He was heard moaning loudly as he was wheeled a short time later into the UCLA’s emergency room.

Langness said the stowaway’s respiration was aided overnight by a breathing tube. The man did not immediately speak after the tube was removed, although he communicated with doctors in writing.

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Doctors were still uncertain Friday afternoon about the man’s age and nationality, Langness said. He described him as “a large man, obviously in good physical health,” who is probably in his late 20s. He is apparently a Pacific Islander.

Possible Injuries From Lack of Oxygen

“He writes and understands English. Some of his messages were understandable and some were not. We don’t know if there’s neurological damage from a lack of oxygen during the flight,” Langness said.

“We will release him probably in a day or two. The INS is interested, obviously. They’ll make the next call.”

Investigators for the Immigration and Naturalization Service on Friday were waiting for an opportunity to interview the man, said Sharon Gavin, a spokeswoman for the Western Division of the INS.

“As soon as we can talk with him we’ll determine his eligibility for admission,” Gavin said ."If we determine he’s ineligible, it’s Air France’s responsibility to return him.”

Authorities said the stowaway incident is the first of its type for Los Angeles International Airport.

Although unheard of in Los Angeles, stowaway situations are not unusual at small international airports, experts say. But most end in death.

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In early June the bodies of two stowaways were found in a Danish jetliner after being carried for two days in a small compartment behind the craft’s rear wheels. Authorities say the young men, apparently from the Dominican Republic, made at least 40 flights on the Premair Airbus 330 before being discovered dead in Stockholm.

In late February a man who apparently stowed away in a passenger jet’s wheel well fell to his death in Long Island, N.Y., when the wheels opened as the aircraft approached Kennedy Airport. The unidentified man carried Dutch and British coins in his pocket.

That incident came a month after airport workers at the Newark, N.J. airport found the crushed and frozen body of a Turkish man in the wheel well of a Northwest Airlines DC-10 following a flight that had originated in Bombay with a stop at Amsterdam.

Last August, two 15-year-old Guinea boys were found frozen to death in Brussels in the wheel well of a Belgium Sabena Airlines plane.

In 1996, stowaways fell from wheel wells to their deaths into a marina in Long Island, onto a street near Miami and into an industrial area near London. That same year, the body of a teenager who apparently had fallen from a plane in 1994 was discovered near Orlando.

Western Samoa’s Polynesian Airlines sought compensation in 1994 from Tonga for not preventing a Tongan stowaway from climbing into the right wheel well of a Boeing 737-300. The man’s crushed body jammed the landing gear, forcing the plane to crash land.

Stowaways who survive always leave airport crews shaking their heads in amazement.

Tokyo airport officials called it “a miracle” when a lightly dressed, frostbitten 23-year-old Chinese man was pulled alive from a wheel well after surviving a three-hour flight from Shanghai in 1998.

Also in 1998, a man who hid in an Iberia Airlines jetliner traveling from Honduras to Miami jolted a ramp agent when he staggered from the DC-9’s left rear wheel well wearing jeans and a short-sleeved shirt. The 23-year-old was disoriented but did not need to be hospitalized, authorities said.

In January 1999, an 18-year-old Senegalese stowaway survived a five-hour flight to France, where he hoped to find a job. He returned home in March when he failed to obtain permission to stay.

But when Bouna Wade tried another stowaway flight three months later in the wheel well of an Air Afrique plane that had flown from Dakar to the Ivory Coast, he was found dead.


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