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Wednesday, October 26, 2016

By Mark Gomez and Robert Salonga, San Jose Mercury News

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Authorities say a 16-year-old Santa Clara boy is “lucky to be alive” after he ran away from home, clandestinely scaled a fence at Mineta San Jose International Airport, and hid inside the wheel well of a plane flying from California to Hawaii in a case that has raised immediate questions about airport security beyond the terminals.

A congressman who serves on the Homeland Security committee said the startling episode was a reminder of how significant gaps still exist even in an era of ultra-tight airport security that has been in place for a dozen years.

“I have long been concerned about security at our airport perimeters. #Stowaway teen demonstrates vulnerabilities that need to be addressed,” tweeted Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif.

Airport spokeswoman Rosemary Barnes said the airport’s security program “meets and exceeds all federal requirements” and works closely with the Transportation Security Administration and the San Jose Police Department. But the perimeter fence where the boy trespassed, which was caught on surveillance video, is monitored by the airport.

“No security program is 100 percent,” Barnes said. “We’re continuing to review video to determine where in fact he was able to scale the section of fence line, how he was able to proceed onto a ramp and get himself into the wheel well of that aircraft.”

Barnes said the boy, under “cover of darkness,” climbed a perimeter fence sometime between Saturday night and Sunday morning. He then walked or ran across the airport ramp and got inside the wheel well of Hawaiian Airlines flight 45 that left San Jose at 7:55 a.m. and landed five-and-a-half hours later at Kahului Airport in Maui.

The Hawaiian Airlines gate is the northernmost gate at the airport, and the northwest area of the airport grounds is not heavily occupied. Barnes said that overnight, most of the gates are occupied by planes, and the first bank of flights typically depart starting at 6:30 a.m.

Also likely to be under close examination is the actual fencing that was designed to keep out intruders.

“It’s typically six feet and in some sections they’ll put barbed wire at the top of that,” Barnes said. “We have 1,050 acres. That’s a lot of fence line. He could have scaled the fence line really through any area here at the airport. It’s very easy to do so under the cover of darkness, and it appears that’s what he did.”

That the boy survived literally puts him rarefied air, as several similar stowaways in the past have died from frigid temperatures, lack of oxygen or being ejected from the plane as the landing gear is lowered.

The last known person to survive as a stowaway in a flight that long was Fidel Maruhi, who in 2000 also hitched a ride in a wheel well from Tahiti to Los Angeles, a seven-plus-hour and 4,000-mile trip where the temperature dropped to nearly minus-50 degrees Fahrenheit.

In August, a 13- or 14-year-old boy in Nigeria survived a 35-minute trip in the wheel well of a domestic flight after stowing away. Authorities credited the flight’s short duration and altitude of about 25,000.

The Santa Clara teen was questioned by the FBI after being discovered on the tarmac at the Maui airport Sunday morning with no identification, Simon said.

“Doesn’t even remember the flight,” FBI spokesman Tom Simon in Honolulu told The Associated Press on Sunday night. “Kid’s lucky to be alive.”

The boy had run away from his family after an argument, Simon said, adding that when the Boeing 767 landed in Maui, the boy hopped down from the wheel well and started wandering around the airport grounds.

“He was unconscious for the lion’s share of the flight,” Simon said.

Hawaiian Airlines spokeswoman Alison Croyle said airline personnel noticed the boy on the ramp after the flight arrived and immediately notified airport security.

A photo taken by a Maui News photographer shows the boy sitting upright on a stretcher as authorities get ready to load him into an ambulance. Simon said the boy was medically screened and found to be unharmed.

The boy was released to child protective services and not charged with a crime, and TSA alerted the boy’s parents. San Jose police said “the incident will be reviewed to determine if charges will be filed.

AFP Photo/Patrick Baz