The Washington Post

Teenage stowaway defied oxygen shortage, extreme cold in plane’s wheel well

If it doesn't turn out to be a hoax, a 15-year-old boy probably defied long odds against death from hypoxia (oxygen shortage) and cold by a fluke of the conditions he faced in the wheel well of the jet where he stowed away from California to Hawaii, according to an expert on altitude and health.

The Santa Clara runaway "got cold enough to protect his brain, but not cold enough to stop his heart," said Peter Hackett, director of the Institute for Altitude Medicine in Telluride, Colorado, who lectures world-wide on the effects of altitude on the body. He almost certainly spent the trip unconscious, with perhaps just enough heat in the wheel well to endure temperatures of 80 degrees below zero or worse, Hackett said.

"The body temperature drops and that cools the brain, and neuronal activity is suppressed. So the brain shuts down--it goes into what is almost like hibernation, without causing irreparable damage. And then, when it warms up, you can be normal." It's fairly common nowadays for doctors to cool the brain to protect it from damage after heart attacks, he said.

Indeed media reports say the young man emerged from the wheel well about an hour after the plane landed in Maui, conscious but unharmed, to the shock of the ground crew.

Hackett said the stowaway would have been breathing 5 percent oxygen at 30,000 feet, rather than the 21 percent his body was accustomed to at sea level. By 26,000 or 27,000 feet, he would have lost consciousness, if he hadn't earlier. Exposure to the cold for much longer than the 5 1/2 hours of his flight over the Pacific probably would have killed him, Hackett said.

Update 5:25 p.m.: Hackett said that if the plane reached 38,000 feet, as reports suggest, the teen-ager would have just 15 percent of the oxygen he was accustomed to at sea level.

"Chances are you're going to die. In fact it's happened before," Hackett said.

According to a 2003 Slate post, few people survive as wheel well stowaways. In 2000, there were 13, according to the FAA, three of whom lived. In 2001, all six people who tried to enter the United States that way died. In 2002, five perished and one survived.  The overall wheel well survival rate at that time was 20.3 percent, and that doesn't include anyone who might have tumbled out over water or remote areas and died without being counted.

However, Fidel Maruhi, a native of Tahiti, survived a 7 1/2 flight from Papeete to Los Angeles, according to Slate.  When he was discovered, Maruhi's body temperature was just 79 degrees, about 6 degrees lower than what is usually considered fatal. (Normal body temperature is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit).

In 1996, brothers Pardeep and Vijay Saini stowed away on a jet from Delhi to London. Pardeep survived the 11 1/2 hour flight, but his brother died.

A positive sign for the teen's prognosis, Hackett said, is the fact that he apparently regained consciousness. "I think he'd be fine," he said. "...Prolonged unconsciousness would indicate he wasn't going to do well. But if he wakes up after that insult, he's going to be fine."

Lenny Bernstein covers health and medicine. He started as an editor on the Post’s National Desk in 2000 and has worked in Metro and Sports.



Success! Check your inbox for details. You might also like:

Please enter a valid email address

See all newsletters

Show Comments

Sign up for email updates from the "Confronting the Caliphate" series.

You have signed up for the "Confronting the Caliphate" series.

Thank you for signing up
You'll receive e-mail when new stories are published in this series.
Most Read



Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Your Three. Videos curated for you.
Play Videos
Be a man and cry
Deaf banjo player teaches thousands
Sleep advice you won't find in baby books
Play Videos
Drawing as an act of defiance
A flood of refugees from Syria but only a trickle to America
Chicago's tacos, four ways
Play Videos
What you need to know about filming the police
What you need to know about trans fats
Syrian refugee: 'I’m committed to the power of music'
Play Videos
Riding the X2 with D.C.'s most famous rapper
Full disclosure: 3 bedrooms, 2 baths, 1 ghoul
Europe's migrant crisis, explained
Next Story
Lenny Bernstein · April 18, 2014

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.