- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 24, 2007

THE WASHINGTON TIMES From her office behind baggage claim No. 1 at Washington Dulles International Airport, Joyce Bergin catalogs the flotsam and jetsam of travelers’ lives.

Ms. Bergin is the lost-and-found technician for the airport. Leave an umbrella on a bench or your wallet near the Starbucks in Terminal B? It will find its way to her. Forget your Christmas presents on the shuttle or your laptop near Gate 38A? They likely are hanging out here.

About 23 million travelers passed through Dulles last year, says Washington Metropolitan Airport Authority spokeswoman Courtney Prebich. There is a good chance something was left behind.

“We get about 300 items here a month,” Ms. Bergin says. “That’s not including keys and glasses.”

The keys and glasses have shelves unto themselves in the storage area. There’s a full bin for April and one for May. June is filling up fast.

Usually, there is no way to track down owners because keys, though very personal items — think about how only you know how your house key bends a bit to the right or that your remote car-door opener needs a new battery — are hardly ever marked with name tags.

Items that end up in the general lost and found are left behind in common areas of the airport, such as waiting areas, the parking lot and restaurants. The Transportation Security Administration has its own lost and found, as do individual airlines, so contact them if you leave something on a plane.

If the lost items could talk, they might have a story to tell. Ms. Bergin pulls a cute stuffed bunny off the shelf.

“He’s been here since Easter,” she says, hugging the toy. Is there a child somewhere mourning its loss? Probably, but no one has called to claim it.

No one ever came for the full-size toilet that was left on the curb a few years back, says John Jackson, Dulles’ manager of materials.

“Someone was going to take it overseas,” he says. “It weighed too much, so he left it on the curb.”

No one ever came back for the envelope with $5,000 that made its way to the holding room. Or the two sets of adoption papers that were left behind. Or the samurai sword.

“I had a suitcase once that was entirely full of jewelry,” Ms. Bergin says. “The owner did not have her name on it, so I could not find her.”

A big part of the job is detective work. Finding owners is sometimes easy — just read the name tag and dial the phone number. Often, it is more complicated. Ms. Bergin will open a cell phone and call an emergency number or home number if one is programmed into it. Sometimes there is a name, but no contact number. It takes some creativity — online searches or following up on some other identifying clue, such as a company name.

Lost items almost assuredly will be reunited with their owners if they are marked with a name, Ms. Bergin says. She suggests putting a business card or a return address sticker on everything.

She tells the tale of the wedding photographer who was returning from an out-of-town assignment. While passing through Dulles, the photographer misplaced the camera bag holding expensive equipment and hundreds of pictures on film.

“He hadn’t even developed the pictures yet,” Ms. Bergin says. “My God, he was in big trouble.”

The photographer retraced his steps and eventually located his bag. So, as in many wedding stories, they all lived happily ever after.

One way to avoid that predicament is not to rush, Mr. Jackson says. Taking your time is the key to traveling with everything you meant to take, he says.

“Come to the airport early,” he says. “If you are rushing, you are more likely to leave something behind.”

Once owners are located, they pay for the shipping and the lost and found will send off the item. Many times, however, the trail goes cold.

First, lost purses, bags and backpacks get a security screening to make sure they are not safety risks, Ms. Bergin says.

Items remain at Dulles for 60 days before they are sent to the airport authority headquarters for another 30 to 40 days. Eventually, passports are shipped back to embassies. Keys are melted down, Ms. Bergin says. Glasses and cell phones are donated to charity. Clothing is given to the airport police for K-9 unit training or offered to local shelters. Food is thrown out.

The remaining items are auctioned off twice a year. The money goes back into the airport, Mr. Jackson says.

Meanwhile, a wide variety of items still wait for their owners. There is the children’s stick pony that lights up and sings. A bunch of portable DVD players. A gorgeous engagement ring.

“I can’t tell if it is real or not,” Ms. Bergin says, turning over the platinum-and-diamond setting in her palm. “But it is really pretty.”

There are address books and BlackBerrys. A book written in Hebrew. A rice cooker. A whole box of prescription medications. A shelf full of expensive college textbooks and backpacks.

Once, a child was left behind. Amid the airport’s chaos, her family got into two vans and forgot the 9-year-old. Even though lost children are supposed to be the job of the Travelers Aid office, Ms. Bergin found the girl wandering nearby and got her back to her parents.

Another time, it was a hermit crab in a cage. The owners never came back.

“We kept it for a while, but it couldn’t go to auction,” Ms. Bergin says. “We gave it to one of the police officers with little kids.”

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