There was that time with the bleeding box. The one that smelled bad, really bad.
"It stunk up the entire floor," said Veta Hernandez, manager of the lost and found office at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
Hernandez handed that item over to the police. It turned out to be full of shrimp. But she'd never smelled shrimp like that before.
Nearly 800,000 travelers will go through Sea-Tac this week. And they’ll lose a lot of stuff – though most of it won’t stink.
At the lost and found office, down a narrow hallway on the Mezzanine level of the main terminal, shelves are piled high with lost belongings. Carry-on bags sit in rows, neck pillows create soft mountains, misplaced toys lie forgotten in plastic tubs.
“We have watches, bracelets, necklaces, earrings, rings, prescription glasses, sunglasses, lots of IDs, wallets, belts,” Hernandez said.
But the weird and wonderful also get left behind.
"We've seen a prosthetic eye, teeth, bullets, human ashes," Hernandez said.
Wrapped in a blanket on one shelf is a colorful painting of a cow’s head.
No matter how odd the item, the lost and found team of five tries to track down the owner.
Sometimes it's easy – a name and email address on a carry-on bag. But some items require more sleuthing, and Hernandez and her team can get quite creative.
They might use prescription medication found in a lost purse to find the owner through their pharmacy.
Or they’ll turn to the Internet for answers. That was Hernandez’s strategy when a bag full of gifts turned up at her office. There was a name on the bag but no contact details, so she tried Google.
“It was a very strange last name. It was very different, so I knew that anything I found would probably be a good match.”
Hernandez quickly found a landscaping business attached to the name. She called the number but it was disconnected. So she went back to the Web.
“My last idea was to go on Facebook,” Hernandez said.
“I instantly found family members of the people who had been traveling.”
But there were no contact details on their Facebook pages.
“I ended up clicking on what looked to be the son, his girlfriend. And she had put on there where she had worked.”
Hernandez called the restaurant. The woman wasn’t working that day. The restaurant called the woman, she called the son, the son called Hernandez. He told her that the bag she had belonged to his parents and was filled with gifts from Thailand.
“We would have donated those items,” she said, “and he said that was very sentimental.”
Not all items take the team down such twisting rabbit holes.
Khalid Bulale, a new member of the lost and found team, has been working on reuniting someone with a lost laptop.
“Immediately when we get laptops we typically we open it up and see if it has a password, and if it's not password-protected we have a look around,” Bulale said. “We try not to be too intrusive but see if we can find any kind of contact information.”
As it turns out, Bulale's in luck. This laptop isn't password-protected. After poking around for a bit he finds a resume with the owner’s name, number and email address right at the top. He sends her an email and leaves a voice message – game over.
Hernandez said some of the 25,000 items the office gets every year are lost on purpose.
Not too long ago, a guy dropped off a plastic bag full of credit cards and IDs.
“He was a little too comfortable,” she said. “Usually when people find something, they're excited to tell the story of how they found it. But he's very relaxed, and I did suspect a bit by his body language that this could be something different.”
Later, a woman came to claim the bag of credit cards. That's when Hernandez noticed the same guy who had dropped it off standing down the hall. She had her team call the police.
“They ended up arresting the couple for some kind of federal fraud crime because apparently they had been stealing out of mailboxes,” she said.
As the story goes, Hernandez said, the couple wanted to go out and party and they dropped the bag off at lost and found because they needed somewhere safe to store their loot for the night.
But most of the losing is legit. Hernandez and her team get about 2,000 items each month and they return about 40 percent of them. The ones they can’t return get handed over to airport police, donated or destroyed.
When items do get returned, the owners are always very grateful. Hernandez remembers one woman who lost her guitar.
“When she got here to pick it up she was not only in tears but wanted to stand there and sing a song for us.”
There have been more somber reunions, too. One of the most memorable for Hernandez was reuniting parents with the ashes of their child.
“That day I remember they were at our window before we were even open. To get that back … nobody could be happier than that,” she said.
Working at lost and found has taught Hernandez how to avoid losing things when she's traveling. To start with, she labels everything.
“Even carry-on items are labeled,” she said. “I place all of my jewelry and things in a plastic bag or in my carry-on and put them on after security. All of my shoes that I pack inside my luggage are tied together because often one shoe will fall out. So, that's the basics.”