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Falling from an airplane: When bravery leads to death

It was a Sunday afternoon in London (30th June, 2019 to be precise) when it happened. Wil, a software engineer, saw something falling from the sky and dismissed it as a bag that had escaped an airplane’s cargo section. On closer inspection, he found that it was a body of a man who had fallen from a Kenya Airways flight KQ100.

He was a stowaway who had tried to make the journey from Kenya without getting inside the airplane. He chose to crawl into its wheel well instead. An attempt that may seem possible in movies, but not in real life.

When an aircraft reaches 35,000 ft (they usually take 25 minutes to do that), the temperature outside is -54 degree celsius. Due to the presence of hydraulic lines, the temperature may come down to -35 degree celsius. That level of cold is enough to freeze a person and cause fatal hypothermia. Not just that, the shortage of oxygen at that altitude will make it difficult for a person to breathe. He’ll have hypoxia which can lead to heart attacks and brain death.

Even if the stowaway somehow manages to survive these conditions, he’ll face a tougher challenge when the plane decides to land. He’ll probably fall down to the ground thousands of feet below. Despite the risks associated with this kind of travel, an alarming number of people do it. For some, it seems life is not as important as the idea of starting afresh in a new country.

What’s more alarming is that some of the people survive. In a 1996 paper for the Federal Aviation Administration, Stephen Veronneau (a leading authority on wheel well stowaways) wrote, “The person’s core body temperature can fall to 27C [a healthy body temperature is between 36.1C and 37.2C], or even lower. When the plane lands, a gradual rewarming occurs, along with reoxygenation. If the individual is so fortunate as to avoid brain damage or death from the hypoxia and hypothermia, cardiac arrest or failure on rewarming, or severe neurovascular decompression sickness complications, some progressive recovery of consciousness occurs.”

To investigate the case of the Kenyan man who fell down, DS Paul Graves from Brixton Police Station was appointed. He wasn’t the first preference, but the relevant authorities were swamped with other work that day. Graves had worked on stabbings, attempted murders, shootings and kidnappings. He believed that the experience of working for the police made one less optimistic. After getting the case, Graves checked with Heathrow airport and asked them to investigate the wheel wells of KQ100. A rucksack with bread, a bottle of Fanta, a bottle of water, some Kenyan currency and a pair of trainers was found. At the mortuary, his DNA samples and fingerprints were collected and sent to the Kenyan authorities to figure out his identity. Alas, none of the samples matched much to the disappointment of Graves.

It’s not uncommon for people in less developed countries to risk their life and limb to try and escape to a better place.

According to UN Refugee Agency, six people died every day while trying to cross the Mediterranean. And yet, the case of the Kenyan man was unique. He had managed to escape his home country and fallen straight in the middle of one of the wealthiest localities in London. “It’s in your face,” Graves told The Guardian.

After failing to uncover his identity, Graves boarded a flight to Kenya to investigate the case further. As the flight was taking off, he thought about a man curled up in its wheel well and it made him wince. “In my job, you see lots of horrible things: dead bodies and smashed-up people, and you do suffer compassion fatigue, to a degree. But when I heard the noise of the wheels, I thought: oh, blimey. It felt like such a desperate thing to do,” he said in the same interview.

In Kenya, Graves exhausted all his leads and turned to the media for attention. However, his Kenyan counterparts stopped him from doing so. After all, stowaways are bad news for a country. Once, after San Jose airport’s perimeter was breached, the airport spent $15.4 million on 10,000 ft of fencing. These cases also made people wonder about the living conditions of the stowaway’s country. Could life be so miserable that one had to take such impossible risks to escape it? Graves’ efforts seemed to bear fruit when a Sky News investigation said that the man was Paul Manyasi, a 29-year-old man who worked as a cleaner at the airport.

Unfortunately, the report was soon found to be false and Sky published an apology. Till date, the man’s real identity has not been found. He was cremated on Lambeth cemetery on 26th February, 2020 (a long time after his dead body was found). On the coffin, it was written: “Unknown (Male), Died 30th June 2019, Aged 30.”

The Urruda take

The case of the Kenyan man was indeed horrific, but a lot of migrants die around the world. They are locked in the back of lorries, shot down by border guards on chain link fences or beaten to death by racist mobs. Since 2014, 10,134 people have died while migrating according to the Missing Migrants project. The actual number may be multiple times more than that. To mitigate this menace, every airport in the world needs to have stringent security measures. Alongside, we must have some sympathy for those (a lot of them teenagers) who embark on such dangerous journeys.

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