Officials have now determined that the male teen died of asphyxiation after sneaking into one of the aircraft’s wheel wells in Mali, which means the boy’s remains were aboard when the plane was used to fly the evacuated personnel from Tunisia to Sigonella, Italy.
The C-130 was one of several involved in the mission to evacuate at least 150 U.S. embassy personnel and Marines who had been driven out of Libya into Tunisia early Saturday morning, several U.S. officials say. The State Department ordered the relocation of the personnel from Tripoli because of rising violence levels between fighting militias that posed a threat to embassy staff.
After driving westward into Tunisia, the embassy personnel boarded aircraft that took them to the U.S. Naval base at Sigonella. Two officials say it is unclear whether the aircraft was carrying civilian personnel or Marines.
When the body was discovered Sunday night at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, the aircraft had just completed an eight-day journey, originating in Senegal and then stopping in Mali, Chad, Tunisia and Italy before returning to Ramstein.
One of the officials said the aircraft had originally gone to Africa on a resupply mission before being “reassigned to support the movement of persons from Tunisia to Sigonella, and from there back to Ramstein.”
At a Pentagon news conference today, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III said U.S. European Command has confirmed “that the young man died of asphyxiation.”
“He got on the plane in Mali,” Welsh said. “I don't know if he is from Mali or not.”
How the teen managed to get into the C-130’s wheel well “is a huge question mark” and the incident “raised security flags for everybody involved,” Welsh said.
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James agreed, saying, “obviously, whatever happened here, something fell through the cracks that his boy was able to gain access to the aircraft.”
One U.S. official said the boy’s remains were found in a part of the wheel well “that couldn’t be considered accessible by anyone.” Maintenance crewmembers saw what appeared to be an orange rag sticking out of a portion of the wheel well, according to the official.
They tried pulling it out but found it was attached to something. They then removed a panel in the well and found the teen’s remains.
Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby Tuesday told reporters that security measures at airfields in remote locations may not be the same as those found in the United States.
“The aircraft is a rugged aircraft designed to operate in austere locations. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody that the security at some of these fields is not going to be at the same level," he said. “We shouldn’t expect that the security environment in every location that these aircraft operate in will be at the same high standard.”
The German and U.S. teams that removed the body wore protective clothing because of concerns about the potential for communicable diseases, military officials said.
Subsequent tests were negative, Kirby said.