Teen Stowaway Survives 5-Hour Flight in Wheel Well

"Kid's lucky to be alive," FBI spokesman Tom Simon in Honolulu told The Associated Press.

By OSKAR GARCIA
|  Monday, Apr 21, 2014  |  Updated 6:51 PM EDT
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A Santa Clara teenager survives a flight to Hawaii, by clinging to a wheel well. Christie Smith reports.

A Santa Clara teenager survives a flight to Hawaii, by clinging to a wheel well. Christie Smith reports.

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A 15-year-old boy stowed away in the wheel well of a flight from California to Hawaii on Sunday, surviving the trip halfway across the Pacific Ocean unharmed despite frigid temperatures at 38,000 feet and a lack of oxygen, FBI and airline officials said.

Not only was he unharmed, but officials also said he wasn't even dirty.

FBI spokesman Tom Simon in Honolulu told The Associated Press on Sunday night that the boy was questioned by the FBI after being discovered on the tarmac at the Maui airport with no identification.

"Kid's lucky to be alive," Simon said.

That was a sentiment echoed by San Jose International Airport spokeswoman, Rosemary Barnes, on Monday. "We are thankful the teenager survived the journey," she said in a statement. "Our thoughts are prayers are with him and his family."

Simon said security footage from the San Jose airport verified that the boy from Santa Clara, Calif., hopped a fence to get to Hawaiian Airlines Flight 45 on Sunday at 7:55 a.m. The child had run away from his family after an argument, Simon said. Simon said when the flight landed in Maui at 10:25 a.m. Hawaii time, the boy hopped down from the wheel well and started wandering around the airport grounds.

"He was unconscious for the lion's share of the flight," Simon said. The flight lasted about 5½ hours.

Hawaiian Airlines spokeswoman Alison Croyle said airline personnel noticed the boy on the ramp after the flight arrived and immediately notified airport security.

The Hawaiian Airlines plane the Santa Clara stowaway hid on returned to San Jose International Airport. April 21, 2014.

 "Our primary concern now is for the well-being of the boy, who is exceptionally lucky to have survived," Croyle said.

Simon said the boy was medically screened and found to be unharmed.

"Doesn't even remember the flight," Simon said. "It's amazing he survived that."

His misadventure immediately raised security questions. A congressman who serves on the Homeland Security committee wondered how the teen could have snuck onto the airfield at San Jose unnoticed.

"I have long been concerned about security at our airport perimeters. #Stowaway teen demonstrates vulnerabilities that need to be addressed," tweeted Rep. Eric Swalwell, a Democrat who represents the San Francisco Bay Area's eastern cities and suburbs.

A Mineta San Jose International Airport spokeswoman said airport police were working with the FBI and the Transportation Security Agency to review security at the facility as part of an investigation. A TSA spokeswoman on Monday, however, said the breach is not a TSA matter.

San Jose's airport issued a statement saying its "security program meets and exceeds all federal requirements, and we have an excellent track record... Despite this, no system is 100 percent and it is possible to scale an airport fenceline, especially under cover of darkness and remain undetected."

Officials at Kahului Airport referred questions to the State Department of Transportation, which did not return a phone call seeking comment.

The boy was released to child protective services and not charged with a crime, Simon said.

In August, a 13- or 14-year-old boy in Nigeria survived a 35-minute trip in the wheel well of a domestic flight after stowing away. Authorities credited the flight's short duration and altitude of about 25,000.

Others stowing away in wheel wells have died, including a 16-year-old killed after stowing away aboard a flight from Charlotte, N.C., to Boston in 2010 and a man who fell onto a suburban London street as a flight from Angola began its descent in 2012.

NBC Bay Area's Lisa Fernandez and Christie Smith contributed to this report.

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