SANTA CLARA -- After Yahya Abdi hopped the fence in the darkness at the San Jose airport before climbing into the wheel well of a Hawaii-bound 767, airport security cameras caught a shadowy figure scurrying across the tarmac and lingering near the plane.
But no one was watching.
Staff members in the airport operations center who monitor security screens were likely distracted by other duties, including taking phone calls and dispatching security officers to deal with door alarms or other routine issues, airport spokeswoman Rosemary Barnes said. No one can watch the monitors at every moment, she said, revealing for the first time how airport officials might have missed the breach that resulted in the teen taking a death-defying 5-1/2-hour flight in the wheel well to Maui. And the teenager -- a Somalia refugee whose father said Wednesday had trouble adapting to American life -- was easy to miss, sources said, hiding in the first plane he encountered after hopping the barbed wire-topped fence from a remote corner of the airport grounds under the cover of night.
While Yahya's escapade, which began either late Saturday or early Sunday, didn't attract airport security's attention, it sounded alarms among local politicians worried about security breaches in an era of terrorist threats.
"There's no fail-safe system, but surely there has to be one that can prevent the intrusion of a teenager with too much testosterone," said San Jose City Councilman Sam Liccardo, who walked out to the airport's fence line to see how easy it is to scale. "What's disconcerting is how long they could stay out there. It may be a lot less about the fence and a lot more about what we're doing inside the office where we monitor the cameras."
Just how long Yahya was hiding in the wheel well before the 8 a.m. takeoff is unclear. The Transportation Security Administration told officials at Mineta San Jose International Airport not to reveal the time stamp on surveillance video, Barnes said.
But Yahya was clearly on a mission. When he stepped out of the wheel well in Maui and was picked up by airport security there, he told the airport manager there was trouble at home, and he wanted to get to Somalia to find his mother, whom he hadn't seen in several years.
"It appeared that there was an argument at home ... some disagreement with his dad and his stepmom, so he decided to, you know, leave," Maui airport Manager Marvin Moniz told ABC News. When Moniz asked the teen how he got to the plane undetected, Yahya said, "Well, I jumped the fence."
Yahya's father, Abdilahi Yusuf Abdi, said in an interview Wednesday with the Somali service of VOA that he is happy that "Allah has saved" his son, who survived the flight with little oxygen and temperatures dipping as low as minus-85 degrees.
The teen emigrated as a refugee with his father and stepmother about four years ago, sources said, arriving in San Diego before moving to the Bay Area. Yahya, who was learning English, was struggling to keep up in school, his father said. The teen transferred five weeks ago from Oak Grove High School in South San Jose to Santa Clara High.
"He did not receive education when he was in Africa," Abdi said in the VOA interview. "Since we came here, he had learning challenges at school. He was not good at math and science, and I think he had a lot of education problems bothering him. He was very quiet person. He was always busy with watching the TV and using computer."
Abdi is a cab driver and routinely takes passengers to and from the San Jose airport.
Abdi did not discuss the boy's mother or whether there was discord at home. But he said that Yahya was "always talking about going back to Africa, where his grandparents still live. We want to go back, but due to the current living conditions, we can't go back."
He said he saw his son Friday afternoon while the family prayed together. They worship at the Muslim Community Association Islamic Center in Santa Clara, which has been buzzing with the news of the stowaway.
One Somali woman there who declined to be identified said the teen was one of "eight or nine" children. Family members continued to hole up in their modest Santa Clara home for a second day on Wednesday, declining to answer the door for news crews from across the country.
However, Mukhtar Guled, the cousin of the boy's stepmother, told ABC7 News that Yahya had been at odds with his stepmother over household chores.
"He has to watch the house, do the dishes, and even cleaning. He thought he was not supposed to do that. He didn't want to take it. The other children, willing to take it, but he wasn't," Guled said.
He said that the boy recently learned that his stepmother was not his biological parent, which may have fueled feelings of resistance.
" 'This woman is not my mom and is treating me like this. And don't do anything about it. I need my mother,' " Guled told ABC7.
He said the boy "was running away from pain of some sort," and added that two days after he'd gone missing, his parents had not reported his disappearance to police.
At the San Jose airport, Barnes said the surveillance video does not capture the teenager scaling the fence, but "we have some video surveillance that shows an unidentified individual on the tarmac, during darkness, in the vicinity of the aircraft."
The airport has about 2,800 people with badges allowing them access to the airfield, and each one is responsible for challenging anyone they see without a badge, Barnes said.
South Bay's elected officials say the incident has sounded a wake-up call for airport security nationwide.
The incident "raises serious concerns affecting passenger safety," said Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Dublin and the only California congressman on the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Transportation Security. He wrote to the Government Accountability Office on Tuesday to bolster other lawmakers' earlier request for a new review of airport perimeter security. The GAO's last such review was in 2009.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, whose district includes the San Jose airport, said she talked with Swalwell Wednesday and her staff has been getting updates from airport officials. Lofgren, D-San Jose, said it's lucky that the teenager -- who wasn't hurt and meant no harm to others -- exposed this security flaw rather than someone more malevolent.
"Nothing is ever perfect, but you can't have these kinds of breaches and have unsecured access to airplanes," she said. "We've got to make sure that every technology and protocol is in place to prevent that, not just at San Jose but at any airport."
She's confident that San Jose airport officials are taking the situation seriously. "They're aghast at what happened, and in overdrive to make sure nothing like this can ever happen again."
How Yahya survived the flight in the wheel well -- a feat that has a 76 percent death rate, according to Federal Aviation Administration figures -- is a source of wonder worldwide. The FAA said in prior cases of survival, people fell into a hibernation-like state. FBI Special Agent Tom Simon said that once Yahya hid in the wheel well, he said he fell asleep, waking up only when it was taking off. He blacked out soon after, Simon said.
Authorities say the teen woke up about an hour after the flight touched down at Kahului Airport and climbed down to the amazement of grounds crews. Surveillance video captured his legs dangling from the wheel well before he emerged.
Abdilahi Abdi told VOA he expects an imminent return of his son to the Bay Area. The teen is at a Honolulu children's hospital under the care of Child Welfare Services in that state. He has not been charged with any federal crimes, nor is he expected to face charges in Santa Clara County.
Staff writers Eric Kurhi, Mark Gomez, Mike Rosenberg and Becky Bach contributed to this report.