Some medical experts said that the teenage stowaway who survived a flight from San Jose to Hawaii in the wheel well of a jet is lucky to be alive.
The 16-year-old had run away from home when he climbed the fence on Sunday morning and crawled into the left rear wheel well of Hawaiian Airlines Flight 45.
Authorities called it a “miracle” that the teen survived the 5 1/2-hour flight. The wheel well of the Boeing 767 is not pressurized or heated, meaning the teen possibly endured extremely thin air and temperatures as low 80 degrees below zero when it cruised at 38,000 feet.
Armand Dorian, a Los Angeles doctor who treated a high-altitude stowaway survivor in 2000, said the teen’s survival was not as surprising as his condition. In the earlier incident, a 20-something man from Tahiti crumpled onto the tarmac at Los Angeles International Airport after the 7 1/2-hour flight from French Polynesia.
His body core temperature had dropped to 79 degrees, which would normally be fatal, and he had to be placed on a ventilator and pumped full of warm fluids via tubes inserted in his chest, recalled Dorian, now an associate clinical professor of emergency medicine at USC/Verdugo Hills Hospital.
After looking at a picture of the more recent stowaway, whose clothes appeared intact and unsoiled by grease, like the earlier victim, Dorian said: “I’m a skeptic of it, thinking of how that other guy survived.”
“It’s 100% possible. I’ve taken care of one of these rare occurrences,” he added. “Obviously all those factors makes the impossibility of it ring true, but having said that, human beings are all resilient and very different.”
Dorian said there are two main factors that would kill a person in the boy’s position: a lack of oxygen from the thinner air (hypoxia) or the freezing temperatures (hypothermia).
In this boy’s case, Dorian said, the fatal combinations probably became life-saving.
“If you took 100 people, probably 80 or 90 would be dead from multiple factors,” Dorian said. “But the way it probably happened, the planets aligned. You get the cooling process in a gradual way or the person can tolerate the speed the cooling happens. They cool down at the same time they become hypoxic, the need for oxygen declines as the body cools. It’s exactly like the concept of cryogenic freezing, in laymen’s terms. The boy’s body went into a frozen state.”
According to the Federal Aviation Administration, the plane’s steady climb to high altitudes may allow a person to drift into unconsciousness as oxygen becomes scarce. And as the heat dissipates from the wheel well, a stowaway can develop hypothermia, a condition that preserves the central nervous system. Both hypoxia and hypothermia may resolve as the plane gradually descends for landing, the FAA said.
Authorities are still investigating how much of this came into play with the teen who was found on the tarmac at Maui’s Kahului Airport.
The plane landed at the Maui airport at 10:30 a.m. local time on Sunday, but Simon said the teen did not regain consciousness for an additional hour. Once he woke up, he hopped down to the tarmac.
Hawaiian Airlines personnel noticed the teen on a ramp and notified security, airline spokeswoman Alison Croyle said in a statement released Sunday night.
“Our primary concern now is the well-being of the boy, who is exceptionally lucky to have survived,” the statement said.
Simon said the teen had run away from home. There was no indication that he posed a threat to the airline, and he has not been charged with a crime, officials said.
He cleared a medical checkup and was handed over to officials from the Hawaii Department of Human Services. Officials did not release his name because he is a minor.
Rosemary Barnes, a spokeswoman at the San Jose airport, said the FBI and Transportation Security Administration were investigating how the teen breached security and made it onto the plane but could provide no further comment.
The teen’s case is extreme, but it’s not the first time a stowaway has survived a flight in the wheel well of an aircraft.
In August 2013, a teenage boy from Nigeria endured a 35-minute trip in the wheel well of a domestic flight that landed in Lagos. Officials credited the trip’s short flight time and relatively low altitude with helping him survive.
On another occasion, a stowaway managed to survive a flight from Havana to Madrid, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
But in 2012, the body of a 26-year-old stowaway was found crumpled on a suburban London street. Officials believe he had climbed aboard a British Airways plane in Angola and was either dead or near death as he fell from the wheel well during the plane’s descent into Heathrow Airport.