HONOLULU, Hawaii – Long flights can leave anyone a little unsteady, but a teenager who defied the odds, surviving a flight from California to Hawaii tucked in a jetliner’s wheel well, was disoriented, thirsty and could barely walk after the freezing, low-pressure ordeal, airport officials who reviewed video of his arrival said Wednesday.
Security video shows the 15-year-old boy dangling his feet for about 15 seconds from the wheel well before jumping 8 to 10 feet to the ground, landing on his feet and immediately collapsing on Sunday morning, Maui District Airport Manager Marvin Moniz said.
Staggering toward the front of the plane, the soft-spoken boy in a San Francisco Giants hoodie asked a ramp agent for a drink of water, setting in motion federal and local law enforcement investigations, national calls for better airport security and a flurry of speculation about how anyone could survive such a perilous trip.
FBI and TSA investigations questioned the boy and fed him like a local with teriyaki meatballs and rice from an airport restaurant and a box of Maui macadamia nut cookies. The teen, whose name has not been released, had little to offer in the way of an explanation.
He said he had been in an argument at home but couldn’t remember the flight. He didn’t know where he was.
When asked if he knew the plane he boarded was coming to Maui, the boy said: “‘I don’t know, I just got on the first one I came to,’” Moniz said.
“He didn’t realize he was in Maui — not at all,” Moniz said.
He was clear, however, about how he evaded what was supposed to be a multi-layered airport security system back in San Jose: He said he climbed a fence.
That hasn’t surprised airport security experts, who say that for all the tens of billions of dollars the nation has spent on screening passengers and their bags, few airports made a comparable investment to secure the airplanes parked on the tarmac.
“No system is foolproof,” San Jose International Airport aviation director Kim Aguirre said. “Certainly as we learn more, if we see any gaping holes, we will work to fill them.”
Aguirre said a perimeter search found no holes or crawl spaces in the barbed wire fence surrounding their 1,050 acre facility, and officials were waiting to finish their investigation before implementing any additional security measures.
Santa Clara High School Principal Gregory Shelby sent a note Tuesday to staff members saying the teen had been in the U.S. for about four years, speaks English as his second language and had transferred into the district just five weeks ago, according to Jennifer Dericco, a spokeswoman for the Santa Clara Unified School District.
Shelby did not return calls from The Associated Press seeking comment.
Dericco said confidentiality rules kept her from confirming the teen was a student at the school.
The boy’s father drives a taxi, Aguirre said, but she didn’t know if he works at the airport.
Aviation security experts say the San Jose airport is hardly alone when it comes to weaknesses in securing its airfield.
“What happened in San Jose can happen as we speak at other airports, because nobody can watch all these monitors” that feed video from around the airport, said Rafi Ron, former head of security at the closely guarded airport in Tel Aviv, Israel who now runs a security consulting firm.
The fact that the teen survived is remarkable: At a cruising altitude of 38,000 feet, temperatures in the wheel well would have been well below zero and the air so starved of oxygen that he likely passed out. In response, his body could have entered a hibernation-like state, from which he emerged once he was back on the ground, experts say.
Although he was walking after the flight, he has remained hospitalized since Sunday.
The TSA said it has spent $80 billion on aviation security since its inception shortly after the 9-11 attacks. That does not include perimeter security.
“We were investing all our resources in the front door, which were the passengers and their bags,” said Ron, the security consultant. “And we left the back door open. And that was the perimeter and access to aircraft.”
Christopher Bidwell, a security specialist with a trade group representing airports, said the facilities continually evaluate ways they can best secure airfields and work with the TSA to comply with federal requirements.
“In the U.S., we have a very effective aviation security system in place,” said Bidwell of the Airports Council International-North America.
AP National Writer Martha Mendoza in San Jose, Calif., contributed to this report.