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Stowaway case baffles experts, raises security questions

SAN FRANCISCO – The case of the 15-year-old stowaway who scaled a fence at San Jose International Airport before surviving a five-hour flight to Maui in a jet’s wheel well has stunned aviation experts marveling at his survival – and raises questions about the security breach it exposed.

Authorities said the boy apparently hopped an 8-foot fence topped with barbed wire at the San Jose airport while it was dark early Sunday. Surveillance video showed an unidentified person walking toward a Hawaiian Airlines Boeing 767 on the tarmac, authorities said.

Flight 45 took off at 7:55 a.m. – with no one realizing that the boy had snuck into the plane’s wheel well.

The boy was apparently unconscious for the duration of the 2,400-mile flight at high altitude and frigid temperatures. After the plane landed at Kahului Airport in Maui at 10:30 a.m. local time, he remained unconscious for about an hour before emerging from the wheel well, said FBI Special Agent Tom Simon in Honolulu.

“Hawaiian Airlines personnel in Maui noticed the individual on the ramp” and immediately notified airport security, said Alison Croyle, a spokeswoman for the carrier.

A photo from Maui News showed the boy sitting up on a stretcher and being placed into an ambulance. His name and condition weren’t released. He is not facing criminal charges in Hawaii and was released to social workers, Simon said, adding that the teen had run away from his home after an argument.

The boy apparently picked the first plane he saw, Simon said.

“The boy is lucky to be alive,” Simon said. “I can’t imagine anybody surviving that type of flight.”

San Jose airport spokeswoman Rosemary Barnes said the airport, the FBI and Transportation Security Administration officials were reviewing security measures. Barnes said the airport “meets and exceeds” all federal requirements.

Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., said that although much has been done to secure airports after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the incident raises some troubling questions.

“I’m interested, as a member of the Homeland Security committee, in learning about what happened at this airport, what does perimeter security look like at all of our commercial airports across the country and is there more that we could be doing to make sure that somebody who would want to do harm does not have unfettered or ease of access onto the runway.”

Aviation experts said it was hard to believe the boy survived. After takeoff, the plane reached a maximum altitude of 38,000 feet, where temperatures are 40 to 50 degrees below zero.

Wheel wells, the compartments that contain the landing gear for planes, aren’t pressurized. At high altitude, stowaways can die from hypothermia or hypoxia as a result of insufficient oxygen. Even if people survive the altitude of the flight, they could freeze to death – or plunge to the ground once the landing gear is lowered for landing.

Some experts theorized that because of the unforgiving conditions, the boy’s body went into a state of hibernation, remaining unconscious until the plane reached a lower altitude.

Pilot and aviation consultant John Nance said the incident is “one of three things – a hoax, a miracle or we’re going to have to rewrite the textbooks if he actually did what he says he did. He needs to be studied very carefully by medical science because this is not supposed to be possible.”

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