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Medical Experts: Stowaway's Survival Improbable, But Not Impossible

SAN JOSE – A teen who rode in the wheel well of a plane from San Jose to Hawaii will not be charged with any crime. Authorities say he's lucky to be alive.
SAN JOSE – A teen who rode in the wheel well of a plane from San Jose to Hawaii will not be charged with any crime. Authorities say he's lucky to be alive.

The teenage boy survived a five-and-a-half hour flight in freezing temperatures before ground crews discovered him.

“He was weak, hanging from wheel well,” says Maui Airport Manager Marvin Moniz. “(He) fell to the ground.”

Medical experts say it's improbable, but not impossible to survive the extreme conditions:

Warm hydraulic lines and warm tires after takeoff gave off initial heat in the wheel well, but as the plane climbs, oxygen declines.

“Possibly what happened was he went into a coma or comatose state,” says Melanie Singh, from San Francisco General ER. “(He) passed out from low oxygen level.”


And in a perfect storm of circumstances, the subzero temperatures, as much as 70 degrees below zero, hypothermia set in. This lowered oxygen demand and that preserved his nervous system.

“And you essentially develop a state called hibernation,” says Singh. “What could have potentially happened is with the slowed down metabolism, brain and body, he was preserving his essential body reserves for essentials to keep him alive.”

The wheel well is a small compartment with enough room, say airline mechanics, but barely.

“You kind of have to know where to be,” says retired United maintenance worker Bob Stein. “Because when that gear comes up, it comes up fast and hard and the first thing worry about is being crushed if you’re in the wrong place.”

The teen had some trouble hearing at first. Authorities fed him and medics took him to the Maui Memorial Medical Center for treatment. The only thing he had with him was a comb.

That young man had run away from his home in Santa Clara, California where he lives with his mother and step-father.

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