Teen stowaway wanted to go to Africa, ended up in Hawaii instead
Teen stowaway in wheel well survives San Jose-Hawaii flight
The astonishing case of the 15-year-old stowaway who scaled a fence at Mineta 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 is raising questions about the security breach it exposed.
Authorities said the Santa Clara boy apparently hopped an 6-foot fence topped with barbed wire at the San Jose airport while it was dark Sunday morning. 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 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 the Kahului airport in Maui at 10:30 a.m. Hawaii 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.
Teen won't be charged
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 - or in San Jose - and was released to social workers, authorities said. Simon said the teen had run away from home after an argument.
The boy apparently picked the first plane he saw, not realizing that his high-flying sojourn would take him halfway across the Pacific Ocean, Simon said.
"The boy is lucky to be alive," Simon said. "I can't imagine anybody surviving that type of flight."
Croyle agreed, saying, "Our primary concern now is for the well-being of the boy, who is exceptionally lucky to have survived. Hawaiian and its contractors responsible for handling our aircraft in San Jose are ready to assist various government agencies in their investigation of this incident."
The incident is the latest headline-grabbing episode involving security breaches at Bay Area airports by people who ordinarily wouldn't arouse suspicion.
Breach not unique
In February, 62-year-old Marilyn Hartman of San Francisco was caught three times trying to board a plane at San Francisco International Airport. She told police she wanted to go to Hawaii.
In one instance, Hartman succeeded in boarding an aircraft, police said. She was later arrested several more times for allegedly hanging out at the airport in violation of a court order barring her from being there unless she was lawfully ticketed to fly.
San Jose airport spokeswoman Rosemary Barnes said the airport, the FBI and Transportation Security Administration officials were reviewing security measures and remain "concerned about the health and welfare of the teenager." Barnes said the airport "meets and exceeds" all federal requirements.
"Despite this, no system is 100 percent, and it is possible to scale an airport perimeter fence line, especially under cover of darkness, and remain undetected, and it appears this is what this teenager did," Barnes said.
Security under review
She added that airport officials "are currently investigating all possible lessons from this incident in order to identify appropriate changes to the (airport) security program to improve it."
Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Dublin, said that although much has been done to secure airports after the Sept. 11 attacks, the incident raises 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 ease of access onto the runway."
Fred Lau, TSA federal security director at San Francisco International Airport, said Monday that he had asked his staff to contact their counterparts in San Jose to see if there were lessons to learn from the stowaway incident.
Lau, a former San Francisco police chief who previously oversaw security at Oakland International Airport, said, "Things like this just remind us that we could be taking another look at security procedures to make sure that we continue to do the job that we're doing."
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 wheels are 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.
Not unheard of
"A medical miracle, akin to those who fall into frozen rivers and survive," said former San Francisco International Airport spokesman Mike McCarron.
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."
Although such incidents are rare, they are not unheard of. A study of wheel well stowaways by the Federal Aviation Administration said preventive measures include securing the ramp and the airplane when it pauses on the runway and holds for takeoff.
The study noted that some attempts probably go undocumented, with "bodies falling into an ocean, or into a remote land area."
Henry K. Lee is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: email@example.com Twitter: @henryklee