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The mystery of the man from Kenya who fell from the sky

In 2019, the body of a man fell from a passenger plane into a garden in south London. Who was he?

It was Sunday 30 June 2019, a balmy summer’s afternoon, and Wil, a 31-year-old software engineer, was lounging on an inflatable airbed outside his house in Clapham, south-west London. He wore pyjamas and drank Polish beer. As he chatted to his housemate in the sunshine, planes on their way to Heathrow airport made their final approach overhead. On his phone, Wil showed his housemate an app that tells users the route and model of any passing plane. He tested the app on one plane, and then held his phone up again, shielding his eyes from the sun and squinting into the sky.

Then he saw something falling. “At first I thought it was a bag,” he said. “But after a few seconds it turned into quite a large object, and it was falling fast.” Maybe a piece of machinery had fallen from the landing gear, he thought, or a suitcase from the cargo hold. But then he half-remembered an article he had read years before, about people stowing away on planes. He didn’t want to believe it, but as the object got nearer and nearer, it became impossible to deny. “In the last second or two of it falling, I saw limbs,” said Wil. “I was convinced that it was a human body.”

Wil took a screenshot of the flight app notification, and his housemate called the police to give them the details: Kenya Airways flight KQ 100, a Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner that had left Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International airport eight hours and six minutes earlier, at 9.35am local time. Wil went out on his motorbike, hoping he would “see a bag lying on the road, praying it was just a bag or a coat or something,” he said. At one point, he found a rucksack lying in the road, and felt a surge of relief. On closer inspection, it was covered in dust. It couldn’t have fallen from the plane.

 

“As I went around the next road,” recalled Wil, “a police car came screaming past in the opposite direction and very nearly clipped my handlebars. I thought: ‘Oh, my God. It was a human. That’s definitely what this is.’” Wil followed the police car, which led him to Offerton Road, 300 metres away from his home. A whey-faced young man – he looked to be in his 20s or early 30s – stood outside a handsome townhouse, trembling and silent. His name was John Baldock, also a software engineer, and originally from Devon. “He had a million-mile stare,” said Wil.

Wil looked through the window, into the garden. The patio was “totally destroyed”. He looked at John. “The first thing I said to him was: ‘That was a human, wasn’t it?’ Because I still wasn’t 100%. And he didn’t say anything, but he just looked at me and nodded. And then it hammered down on me, like a weight of bricks.”

He plummeted 3,500ft, half-frozen

Wil was right. It was a body. It – he – had plummeted 3,500ft, half-frozen, hitting the ground at 3.38pm. He was the man who fell from the sky. The stowaway.

The Kenya Airways stowaway case would normally have been one for the Metropolitan police’s missing person’s unit, but on the day the call came in, the team was swamped. So DS Paul Graves of the specialist crime unit volunteered. “I thought it was an interesting job,” Graves told me when we met last year in his narrow, strip-lit office at Brixton police station.

In his three-decade career as a police officer, Graves had worked on stabbings, shootings, kidnappings and attempted murders. These were exacting cases, and he was well used to media scrutiny, family and friends demanding answers, and witnesses who were reluctant to cooperate. As an experienced senior detective, Graves hoped to identify the fallen man and repatriate his body, but he wasn’t exactly optimistic. “You’d struggle to find anyone who’s optimistic in the police,” he chuckled.

When the call came in at 3.39pm, officers sped to Offerton Road, where they spoke to Wil, John and the neighbours. Police contacted Heathrow, which dispatched staff to examine the Kenya Airways plane’s wheel wells, the unpressurised area into which the plane’s landing gear retracts after takeoff. In the wheel wells, there is just about enough space for a person to crouch and evade detection. Inside, staff found a grubby khaki rucksack with the initials MCA written on it.

The rucksack didn’t contain any significant clues: just some bread, a bottle of Fanta, a bottle of water and a pair of trainers. “It was literally about survival: food and water and a pair of shoes,” said Graves. But there was also a small amount of Kenyan currency, and the bottle of Fanta was found to have been sold by a Kenyan shop, indicating that the stowaway had almost certainly boarded the plane there. The flight had originally come from Johannesburg to Nairobi, Graves said, so it was helpful to rule out the possibility that the stowaway had smuggled himself on to the plane in South Africa.

At Lambeth mortuary, pathologists took samples

At Lambeth mortuary, pathologists took samples of the man’s DNA and copies of his fingerprints, and sent them to the authorities in Kenya. The DNA results came back quickly: no match. Graves was hopeful that he would have better luck with the fingerprints, as many jobs in Kenya require that candidates are fingerprinted. But the stowaway’s fingerprints weren’t on the Kenyan police database, either.

As Graves continued his work, reporters descended on Offerton Road, interviewing neighbours for a deluge of articles that were careful to mention the value of the house that John was renting (£2.3m) and his alma mater (Oxford University). It’s not hard to see why the story drew headlines. Stories of migrants risking their lives to reach Europe were familiar news fixtures. A month earlier, a record number of boats were intercepted in the Channel on a single day, as more than 70 people were picked up by border forces. The previous year, the UN refugee agency estimated that six people died each day attempting to cross the Mediterranean. But these stories had become so familiar that they were often met with apathy. The story of the Kenyan stowaway seemed novel. Here was an anonymous man, travelling from a country where around a third of the population lives on less than $2 a day, who had fallen thousands of feet from the underbelly of a plane into one of the wealthiest postcodes in London. “It’s in your face,” said Graves. “The meeting of worlds, at about 200mph.”

Stowing away in the wheel well of a passenger jet is, objectively speaking, a suicidally dangerous thing to do. According to the US Federal Aviation Administration, from 1947 to February 2020, 128 people around the world attempted to stow away in this manner. More than 75% of them died. This is not surprising. At every stage, imminent death is all but assured. The stowaway may fall out of the plane as it is taking off, as happened to 14-year-old Keith Sapsford in February 1970, who fell from the wheel well of a Douglas DC-8 travelling from Sydney to Tokyo shortly after takeoff. (Astonishingly, a photographer captured the moment the schoolboy fell from the plane.) If the stowaway survives takeoff, they can be crushed by the landing gear as it retracts into the wheel well. This is how, in July 2011, 23-year-old Cuban stowaway Adonis Guerrero Barrios died above Havana after climbing on to an Airbus A340 bound for Madrid.

If the stowaway avoids being crushed

If the stowaway avoids being crushed, they will probably die shortly after. Within about 25 minutes of takeoff, most passenger planes reach a cruising altitude of 35,000ft feet. The temperature outside the plane is approximately -54C, although the hydraulic lines used to extend and retract the landing gear emit heat, raising the temperature by as much as 20C. Still, -34C is cold enough to induce fatal hypothermia. The air pressure at cruising altitude is around four times lower than sea level, which means that a person’s lungs cannot draw sufficient oxygen from the air. This will lead to hypoxia, when the blood is not able to supply enough oxygen to the tissues of the body, which can cause heart attacks and brain death. The rapid decrease in air pressure during ascent can also cause decompression sickness – known to divers as the bends – in which gas bubbles form in the body, causing a variety of debilitating conditions, some of them fatal.

If the stowaway somehow survives the journey, they will certainly be unconscious when the plane begins its descent. So when the plane’s landing gear extends on its final approach, usually within five miles of the runway, the stowaway will probably fall from the wheel well to the ground thousands of feet below. This is why the bodies of stowaways are sometimes found in south London, under the Heathrow flight path. Mozambican Carlito Vale, who fell from a British Airways flight in June 2015, was decapitated on impact with the air conditioning unit of an office block in Richmond. Pakistan-born Mohammed Ayaz fell from a British Airways flight in June 2001 and died on impact in a Homebase car park, also in Richmond.

And yet what is truly extraordinary, given the risks involved, is that some stowaways do survive. This is something scientists have trouble explaining, not least because they cannot run experiments simulating what happens to human beings shut into wheel wells at high altitude. “Something happens that we don’t fully understand,” said Paulo Alves of the Aerospace Medical Association. Their best guess about how some stowaways cheat death? They hibernate.

To be frozen, and come back to life

In September 2019, three months after Graves took on the case, he flew to Kenya, hoping to uncover any scrap of information that might help identify the stowaway. He visited slums around the airport. He visited mortuaries, which were full of unclaimed bodies. Officials took him on a tour of Nairobi airport and gave him access to CCTV recordings. They revealed that after the plane landed from South Africa, it was taken to stand 1, where it sat for five hours, before being moved to departure gate 17, where passengers boarded the flight to London. CCTV of the departure gate and runway shows that nobody jumped on the plane as it was taking off and nobody climbed into the undercarriage while it was at gate 17. That means the stowaway almost certainly boarded the plane when it was being held at outer stand 1, where the CCTV coverage was less clear.

How had the stowaway managed to get on the plane? From a physical perspective, this wouldn’t have been hard. Stowaways usually make for the two rear wheel wells, because they are bigger than at the front of the plane. To access the wheel well, you have to shimmy about 6ft up the landing gear – it is covered in struts, making it easy to get a foothold – and crawl into the cavity that the wheels retract into after takeoff.

The hard part would have been gaining access to the aircraft before takeoff. Security at Jomo Kenyatta International was tight. “There was no evidence of any obvious security breaches,” said Graves. “All the staff had to use passes to go through secure gates.”

Graves knew that a groundworker, baggage handler or cleaner would have access to the plane when it was being cleaned, refuelled and loaded for takeoff. “You’re looking for a low-paid, low-educated person with access to the pan,” said David Learmont, consulting editor at the aviation news website FlightGlobal. (The “pan” is a military term for the parking area when an aircraft is on the ground.) “It would be unlikely to be someone like a mechanic, because they’d know that stowing away is not a good way to get a cheap flight, because they wouldn’t get to enjoy the other end.” But Kenyan airport authorities insisted to Graves that all their employees were present and accounted for, and that police interviews had found no evidence that staff had assisted the stowaway in accessing the aircraft.

Since the earliest days of aviation, there have been stowaways

Since the earliest days of aviation, there have been stowaways. People from countries including Cuba, South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, the Dominican Republic and China have secretly climbed on to planes in the hope of leaving their old life behind. They abscond for all kinds of reasons: poverty, unhappiness, boredom, despair. Bas Wie, the 12-year-old who stowed away in a Douglas DC-3 from Indonesia to Australia in 1946, was an orphan who worked for food in the kitchens of Kupang airport in West Timor. Abdi, the teenager who flew in the wheel well of a Boeing 767 from California to Hawaii, said he was trying to get back to his mother in Somalia.

Every known wheel well stowaway has been male, although a Cuban woman did ship herself to the US in the pressurised hold of a cargo plane from the Bahamas in 2014. The youngest documented case involved a boy of nine, although the majority of stowaways are adults under 30. Very few stowaway cases involve domestic flights.

When Graves had exhausted all his leads in Kenya, there was only one thing left to do: make his findings available to the media, in the hope of reviving coverage of the story and triggering someone’s memory. “People probably think that the police go out there and search for clues,” he said. “But what we rely on really is the public, and witnesses seeing things and telling us.”

But the idea of more media attention did not go down well with his counterparts in Kenya, Graves said. It is not hard to see why. For the people who run airports, stowaways are embarrassing, dangerous and often expensive. After San Jose’s perimeter was breached, the airport spent $15.4m upgrading 10,000ft of fencing. And for governments, these incidents are bad news, prompting people around the world to wonder why their citizens might be so desperate to leave the country that they would take such extraordinary risks. In July 2013, a 32-year-old Turkish man named Hikmet Komur died after stowing away in the wheel well of a British Airways flight from Istanbul to London. In the days after the incident, Komur’s family were visited by Turkish police and told not to push for more information on how he had accessed the plane. “They told my other uncle not to drag out the situation,” Komur’s niece Fatos, a student from London, told me. “They said to drop it.”

For Kenyan authorities, there may have been an additional concern

For Kenyan authorities, there may have been an additional concern. In 2017, Jomo Kenyatta International airport received a category 1 security classification, permitting direct flights to the US. “There is a general feeling among police that, if the stowaway was shown to be someone who originated from Kenya, the airport security rating would be dropped,” said Kenyan journalist Hillary Orinde, who works for Agence France-Presse. “Every police officer I’ve spoken to has been cagey, for that reason.”

Graves did manage to persuade Kenyan police to circulate information about the case through their police gazette, hoping to encourage regional officers to make inquiries. On his return to the UK in October, he disseminated an e-fit of the stowaway’s face – which had been reconstructed by pathologists in the days after the incident – alongside a photograph of his meagre possessions. The accompanying press release made reference to the initials written on the stowaway’s rucksack: MCA.

Reporters seized on this new information, and on 12 November, Sky news published the results of an investigation in which they claimed to have identified the stowaway as Paul Manyasi, who had been 29 and worked as a cleaner at the airport. Manyasi’s girlfriend, who was given the pseudonym “Irene”, told Sky that the initials on the rucksack stood for “member of county assembly”, claiming this was Manyasi’s nickname. His mother claimed to recognise his underpants.

Willy Lusige, a journalist for the Kenyan TV network KTN News, was stunned. Like many Kenyan journalists, he had followed the story closely and attempted to identify the stowaway himself, but got nowhere with the airport authorities or police. He had trouble believing the case had truly been solved. Orinde also had misgivings. “His mother said she hadn’t spoken to him for a number of years,” Orinde said, “but she was able to identify his underpants?”

When Lusige found the family of the man Sky had identified

Both men began to dig into the Sky investigation. When Lusige found the family of the man Sky had identified as Paul Manyasi, he knew that something was wrong. “I expected because they had been told their family member was dead that there would be a sombre mood,” he says, “but when I went there it was just a normal day.” The father told Lusige that some white people came to visit the family and gave them $200. “Money had changed hands, and an illiterate father was convinced to go on record and say that his son was the stowaway,” said Lusige.

The Sky investigation quickly disintegrated. There was no record of a Paul Manyasi ever having worked at Jomo Kenyatta airport. Nor did the parents who Sky had spoken to have a son named Paul Manyasi. Their son was called Cedric Shivonje Isaac. (It is unclear where the name Paul Manyasi came from.) Finally, there was the inconvenient, but not inconsiderable, fact that Isaac was not dead, but alive, locked up in prison in Nairobi. “When foreign journalists come and do a story in Kenya,” Orinde said, “people open up, because they think that people around them will not see the story. They don’t imagine anyone at home is going to check to see if what was reported was true.” On 22 November, Sky retracted the article, and published an apology.

Orinde remains perplexed by the case. “Kenya doesn’t have such a culture of people desperately trying to get to the west by any means possible,” he said. Kenya is relatively wealthy compared to many other countries in the region, with the sixth-largest economy in Africa. A more pressing concern, says Orinde, are the migrant workers who go to the Gulf states, and end up being abused by their employers.

By the end of 2019, Kenyan officials had wrapped up their investigation, and no breach had been found at Jomo Kenyatta International. It retained its category 1 security status. Then, more than a year later, something strange happened. On 4 February 2021, a Turkish Airlines Airbus A330 freighter landed at Maastricht. Above the main landing gear was a 16-year-old Kenyan boy. The plane had originated from Jomo Kenyatta airport on 3 February, making stops in Istanbul and London, before landing in the Netherlands. Miraculously, the boy was alive, and apparently unharmed. He was discharged from hospital after one day.

Jomo Kenyatta airport authorities have not acknowledged the incident

In a statement, the teenager told Dutch investigators that he walked on to the plane and fell asleep, and explained that his motive for leaving Kenya was to seek a better life. He is now seeking asylum in the Netherlands. Jomo Kenyatta airport authorities have not acknowledged the incident, or explained how a stowaway was able to breach their security protocols once again. Flights from the airport continue to land in the UK.

We still do not know the identity of the man who fell to earth on 30 June 2019. All we know – or think we know – are the last things he would have seen and heard. The grunt and hiss of hydraulics inside the wheel well, as flight KQ 100 waited on the runway in Nairobi. The clattering footsteps on metal stairs as passengers boarded the plane. The thud of suitcases being thrown into the hold. The plane pulling away from the stand, pivoting and taxiing towards the runway. White markings flashing beneath his feet. A pause, and then the drone of Rolls-Royce engines attacking asphalt at 180mph. The plane picking up speed, the noise intensifying into the pneumatic whine of a thousand dentist’s drills. Lift-off. A whip of wind, an icy chill, and up to 10,000ft, 20,000ft, 35,000ft. Colder and colder. Unconsciousness. Oblivion.

He was buried in Lambeth cemetery on 26 February 2020.

He was buried in Lambeth cemetery on 26 February 2020. It was a beautiful morning, crisp and clear, and freezing cold. I hopped from foot to foot to stay warm, my fingers trembling as I fastened the buttons on my coat. Around me, four workers from Lambeth council, in green coveralls and mud-clogged boots, waited to see if any mourners would arrive. Beside them a man waited with a digger, ready to fill in the earth.

The council workers talked among themselves about the stowaway’s death. “Considering he fell quite far,” one remarked, “he was in reasonably good condition.” “A poor person was sunbathing, weren’t they?” said the gravedigger. “Thump!”

“Unknown (Male), Died 30th June 2019, Aged 30.”

By now, I was shaking from the cold. As they prepared to lower the body into the ground, a solitary mourner panted into view. An official from the Kenyan embassy, dressed in a black suit and leather shoes, barely making it in time. He had the harried air of a man with many obligations and better things to be getting on with. We nodded at each other, and then the workmen stepped forward. The mood switched from cheerful banter to sombre efficiency. They lowered the coffin into the ground, and inclined their heads for a few seconds. On the coffin was a metal plaque, reading: “Unknown (Male), Died 30th June 2019, Aged 30.”

The horror of the Kenya Airways stowaway’s death made for newspaper headlines, but many more migrants die, in equally horrific circumstances, every week. They are locked in the back of lorries and asphyxiate, or fall from moving freight trains, or drown in the Channel. They are shot by border patrol guards through chain link fences, or electrocuted in the Channel tunnel, or beaten to death by racist mobs. They are held in detention centres for years, where they are subject to physical and sexual abuse. Sometimes, they burn themselves alive, out of despair. Since 2014, 10,134 people have died on global migration routes, according to the Missing Migrants project. These figures are likely only a tiny fraction of the true picture.

When the body was in the ground, the embassy worker spun on his heels and hurried away. I looked at the grave. A nameless man lay before me in a little plot of south-west London, in an unmarked grave, identifiable only by a simple wooden cross and a numeric code. There are so many people like him. They keep quiet counsel in unvisited graves, and their stories vanish with them. – theguardian.com