Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Desperation in Action

February 8th, 2010 · 4 Comments

One of our treasured Japanese correspondents just have us a heads up about this tragedy, involving an airplane stowaway who apparently froze to death while concealed in a Boeing 777’s landing gear. Such deaths are actually somewhat common, not to mention quite predictable—at 35,00 feet, temperatures are insanely icy, and oxygen scarce. Yet men and women desperate to escape terrible circumstances keep on tossing the dice.

Do any of them ever win the gamble? We actually looked into this very question some seven years ago, and found a few miraculous cases of survival. Two of our favorites go like so:

Fidel Maruhi, a Tahitian native, lived through a 7-and-a-half-hour flight from Papeete to Los Angeles. When he was discovered, Maruhi’s body temperature was just 79 degrees, about 6 degrees colder than what’s usually considered fatal. Repatriated to Tahiti after his feat, Maruhi later said that he remembers nothing of the trip, having blacked out just after takeoff.

In December 2002, a Cuban refugee named Victor Alvarez Molina made it to Montreal in the wheel well of a DC-10, enduring four hours in temperatures that dropped to minus-40 F. His saving grace was a leak in a compartment pipe, which seeped out warm air. The pipe also provided him a convenient lifeline to hold onto when the landing gear deployed. Unlike Maruhi, Molina was granted refugee status and now hopes to bring his family to Canada. Presumably in more comfortable circumstances.

The FAA’s latest look into the stowaway problem can be found here. We wonder how many deaths it will take before pre-flights checks of wheel wells become mandatory—especially for planes departing nations mired in misery.

(Image via The Mariners’ Museum)


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4 Comments so far ↓

  • scottstev

    That’s awful to think about. I wonder if the stowaways consider it suicide with lottery-like odds of survival, or if they believe it’s a rational plan of escape. I would hate to think that popular movies showing this maneuver working inspired anyone to take it literally as an option, but I don’t know what else would make someone try to attempt it.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @scottstev: This first-person account from a wheel-well stowaway who survived is instructive:


    Note the last line, in particular: “Even knowing the risks, I would try to escape again If I had to.”

  • Jordan

    I wonder if some of it has to do with the rate of temperature decrease. There’s a lot of research going into hypothermia as a method to protect against brain damage and the like. The concomitant decrease in metabolism would also potentially help them survive the low-oxygen environment. These stories definitely seem like fertile ground for people interested in the different ways the human body responds to temperature changes.

    That said, the risks are astronomically high. Only by luck would they ever hit on just the right conditions to let them live through the process.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Jordan: One thing I’ve noticed in survivors’ tales is that they all passed out extremely early in the process. In fact, most of them say they remember nothing between takeoff and hitting the ground. I guess there’s a physiological defense mechanism at work there.