WASHINGTON – A samurai sword,an FBI badge,hundreds of eyeglasses and pieces of jewelry,and a Transportation Security Administration employee's handgun. The Lost and Found Office at Dulles International Airport is every child's fantasy dress-up closet.
Joyce Bergin has collected many other strange items – a ceramic toilet and a hermit crab – during her five years as office manager.
“One thing I think is hilarious was the playbook for the Redskins when they were playing the Giants that weekend,and I got it before the game,” Bergin said about last year's big find. “[The coach] didn't event know he lost it,which is kind of strange.”
At the Dulles lost-and-found office and those of many other public transit systems,the primary goal is to locate and return hundreds of thousands of lost items every year. To do that,staff members develop inquisitive and investigatory skills – each becomes a modern-day Sherlock Holmes.
“We go through bags and stuff like that very thoroughly,” Bergin said. “I'll find an itinerary or an e-mail that somebody wrote to somebody,or a business card. Laptops,unless they are password protected,we can go into it and find something.”
When a 10-year-old girl showed up at the office door without her family,Bergin said the staff did not conduct a typical search for an owner.
“The mother almost got arrested. There were two vans,six adults,10 kids,a hundred suitcases. They let her go to the restroom by herself,and then they left,” Bergin said.
It wasn't until 45 minutes later that the family realized they had left the airport without the girl.
Bergin said one of her more rewarding recovery stories was from a few years ago when a woman left a folder of adoption papers for an Ethiopian boy in a waiting area. Bergin tracked down the woman's information after contacting the notary whose stamp was on the documents. A month later,she received a thank-you note from the woman with a photo of her five adopted children.
The office takes in thousands of items every year and has a 70 percent return rate,which Bergin is very proud of. TSA and every airline at Dulles are also responsible for keeping track of lost items found in certain areas,such as security checkpoints and ticket counters. The Dulles lost-and-found office collects items from all other areas in the airport,such as restaurants and waiting areas.
Lendy Castillo,manager of Washington Metro's Customer Relations,said certain training is required for his lost-and-found agents to be qualified investigators.
“Part of their responsibility is to,as best as they can,locate that customer at all costs. It does take some investigative work,” Castillo said. “Once you do it a lot of times,you develop a good rapport,a good working process,which makes it a lot easier.”
Between 4,000 and 5,000 items are found every month on Metro's rail cars and buses,which is more than what Dulles collects in a year. Metro served 356.7 million people in 2009,nearly 15 times the annual number of Dulles passengers.
Items are stored in the Metro lost and found for 30 days. After that,unclaimed valuables are sent to an auction,and perishable items are destroyed. Some valuable or special items,such as passports,are sometimes held longer.
The New York City Transit has a different method of storing lost items.
“Every item has a different retention date. This is sort of hard to judge,” said William J. Bonner,supervisor for NYCT's Lost Property Unit.
Items valued at up to $100 are stored for three months,and those valued at more than $1,000 are stored for three years. All jewelry is valued between $500 and $1,000 and is stored for a year. After the retention period,the finder has the option to claim the item.
NYCT carried 2.31 billion passengers in 2009,and is the largest public transit in the U.S. However,its intake for June was 2,126 items,about half of Washington Metro's estimate.
The Los Angeles Metro served 39.6 million people last year and collects about a thousand items a month. Greyhound Lines Inc., which carries 25 million passengers a year,sends lost items to a storage facility in Texas that holds 10,000 to 15,000 items at any given time.
With hundreds of items lost every day on Washington Metro's railways and buses,Castillo said it is often difficult to track down specific items until they are brought to the lost-and-found office on the fifth floor of a suburban Maryland office building near a Metro stop. Visitors to the capital frequently have time constraints when they are trying to locate lost items,which can increase stress levels.
“There are customers that have very busy schedules,and some of them may not live in this area,and time is never on their side,” Castillo said. “We try to match the time that they have at least here in the D.C. area before they go back to their hometown to try to locate their item.”
Castillo said his staff of three understands the personal value lost items have to their owners,but encourages riders to recognize their responsibilities to keep track of their belongings.
“What I do recommend for all of our clients,all of our patrons,is to take 30 seconds before they hop out of that train or that bus to say ‘Hey,do I have all my items with me?'” he said.