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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.”