Three objects tumbled from a plane leaving Ecuador for New York on Monday, falling nearly 1,000 feet just after takeoff and landing with a thud on the runway.
Airport personnel rushed to the site, fearing Latam Airlines flight XL1438 had lost vital parts before leaving the port city of Guayaquil.
They arrived to find one teenager dead from the fall and another badly injured but alive. The second teen would die minutes later, local media outlets reported. A suitcase was also found, with clothes and about $20 inside.
The teens appeared to have crawled into the plane’s landing gear, said Gen. Marcelo Tobar, Guayaquil’s police chief. He speculated they were either forced out by the mechanics of the gears or had second thoughts and jumped in the hope they would survive, according to Ecuador-based El Comercio.
Authorities have since identified the dead stowaways using their partial names: Marco Vinicio PG, 17, and Luis Manuel Ch. P., 16. The two teenagers are cousins from a province outside Guayaquil, authorities said.
The aircraft, carrying 233 passengers, was forced to land back at José Joaquín de Olmedo International Airport following the incident, Latam Airlines Group spokesman David Harry told The Washington Post.
The teenagers were not passengers, Harry confirmed in a statement, adding that the airline has been cooperating with investigative authorities.
The incident also led to a 90-minute shutdown of Olmedo International, the country’s second-largest airport.
Stowaways in the wheel well face extreme dangers, according to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration. After the gears fold up and the plane climbs, the temperature can fall below zero as the air pressure plunges to dangerously low levels, sometimes inducing a hibernation-like state.
The survival rate for stowaways in 10 incidents involving 11 people (one flight recorded two stowaways) was essentially a toss-up, according to an FAA incident summary: Two people froze to death and three fell to their deaths on flights between 1947 and 1993. The six others survived.
Stowaway miracles can happen. While other survivors may have encountered injuries, one teenager arrived unharmed in a 2014 flight from San Francisco to Hawaii.
In the same year, U.S. Air Force personnel found a dead boy in a compartment near a cargo jet’s wheel well after stops in Africa.
The boy appeared to be from Mali, the Pentagon said at the time, potentially fleeing the violence of the civil war entering its second year in 2014.
This post has been updated.