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Teen hitches ride to Hawaii in jet's landing gear -- and lives to tell the tale

By Steve Almasy, Josh Levs and Dave Alsup CNN | 4/22/2014, 9:37 a.m.
The questions are many. But the first has to be, how in the world did a 16-year-old boy survive a ...
A map showing the west coast of the United States, including Hawaii. Maui and San Jose, California, are highlighted. CNN image.

The questions are many.

But the first has to be, how in the world did a 16-year-old boy survive a five-hour flight in below freezing cold weather at oxygen-depleted heights without dying or falling out of the wheel well of a huge jumbo jet?

Another has to be, how does a 16-year-old even sneak on to an airport and a plane to begin with?

Authorities likely were trying to find the answers to some of their questions Monday. The boy remained in the custody of child welfare services workers in Hawaii. But the FBI says they have no more need to interview the boy as he is no threat.

Apparently he's just a runaway who popped out of the wheel well of Hawaii Airlines Flight 45 on Sunday to the amazement of the ground crew at the Kahului Airport on the island of Maui -- and triggering a host of questions.

How did he survive the flight?

As unlikely as it sounds, officials believe the boy rode in a tiny, cramped compartment for almost five hours, at altitudes that reached 38,000 feet, without oxygen and in subzero temperatures.

"It sounds really incredible," said aviation expert Jeff Wise. "Being in a wheel well is like all of a sudden being on top of Mount Everest."

Between the oxygen depletion and the cold, life expectancy "is measured in minutes," Wise said.

But some people have survived. Since 1947, 105 people are known to have attempted to fly inside wheel wells on 94 flights worldwide, the Federal Aviation Administration's Civil Aerospace Medical Institute says. Of those, 25 made it through, including a 9-year-old child -- a survival rate of 24%. One of the flights went as high as 39,000 feet. Two others were at 38,000 feet.

The conditions at high altitudes can put stowaways in a virtual "hibernative" state, the FAA said.

Someone could slip into unconsciousness so that the body cools and "the central nervous system is preserved," said CNN aviation expert Michael Kay. Also, he said, "there could be a situation where inside the bay is warmer than the external air temperature and you wouldn't get the instantaneous freezing of the skin."

Still, "for somebody to survive multiple hours with that lack of oxygen and that cold is just miraculous," airline analyst Peter Forman told CNN affiliate KHON in Honolulu.

The boy's survival is "dumb luck mostly," says Dr. Kenneth Stahl, trauma surgeon at Miami's Jackson Memorial Hospital. The temperature outside the airplane could have been as low as 75 or 80 degrees below zero, said Stahl, who is also a pilot. "Those are astronomically low temperatures to survive."

The boy was likely so cold that "he was essentially in a state of suspended animation," Stahl said. Being young likely worked in his favor, too. "No adult would have survived that," Stahl added.

The boy could face permanent brain damage from the experience, in fact, it's "more likely than not," Stahl said. He could face neurological issues, memory problems or a lower IQ.