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HONOLULU (AP) — A 16-year-old boy survived a harrowing trip halfway across the Pacific Ocean Sunday after climbing into the wheel well of a Hawaiian Airlines jet flying from San Jose, Calif., to Maui, emerging unharmed despite freezing temperatures and a lack of oxygen on a flight that reached an altitude of 38,000 feet, an FBI official said.
“How he survived I don’t know,” said Tom Simon, an FBI spokesman based in Honolulu. “It’s a miracle.”
Security footage from San Jose’s Mineta International Airport verified that the teen, from Santa Clara, Calif., hopped a fence and made his way to Hawaiian Airlines Flight 45, where he managed to climb up the wheel well and stow away without being detected.
“He was unconscious for pretty much the entire flight,” said Simon, noting that temperatures were estimated to have reached 80 degrees below zero during the roughly 5 1/2-hour journey. “I imagine he must have blacked out at about 10,000 feet. The air is pretty thin up there.”
The plane landed at Maui’s Kahalui Airport at 10:30 a.m. local time on Sunday, but Simon said the teen did not regain consciousness for another 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. He cleared a medical checkup and was handed over to officials from the Hawaiian department of child welfare. 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 of 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, Spain, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
Heat from hydraulic lines in the wheel well along with retained heat in the tires can help keep stowaways warm, the FAA reported. In addition, a plane’s steady climb to high altitudes can allow passengers to drift into an unconscious state as oxygen becomes scarce. 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 says.
But things don’t always go this smoothly for stowaways. 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.