The stuff TSA takes from travelers? It goes to Harrisburg — by the ton.

At the distribution center, official Troy Thompson with an item. What people still try to take on an airplane can be an eye-opener. MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer
At the distribution center, official Troy Thompson with an item. What people still try to take on an airplane can be an eye-opener. MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer
Posted: May 14, 2012

HARRISBURG — Every four months, the detritus of post-9/11 America arrives by the tractor-trailer load at a warehouse here, to be sorted, priced, and sold to the highest bidder.

On this particular day, the delivery from LaGuardia, Kennedy, and Newark airports landed rather indelicately, the back of the trailer cracked open like a piñata to reveal broken boxes and heaps of stuff scattered over the truck bed.

One worker admired a Pete Rose model Louisville Slugger baseball bat before putting it in the bin on the skid loader.

Others unloaded armfuls of airline contraband: curtain rods, tripods, athletic equipment galore — lacrosse and hockey sticks, ski poles, golf clubs, even cricket paddles.

Still other workers gathered up handfuls of pocket knives, corkscrews, tools — the holiday season’s bounty taken by Transportation Security Administration employees at some of the nation’s busiest airports.

How did Harrisburg end up the recipient of stuff surrendered at airports from New York to Maryland?

“We’re big enough to handle the volume and have the warehouse capability,” said Troy Thompson, a spokesman for the Department of General Services, explaining that the items are funneled to Pennsylvania through the same channels as federal surplus.

There’s some money in this for a cash-strapped state. Pennsylvania has been selling off TSA-collected items since 2004 — total revenue roughly $700,000 — but recently has begun selling the stuff by the lot, at the online government auction site www.govdeals.com.

In the first month of using that system, 131 items have sold for a total of $18,332.44. The top-selling item was a lot of 25 gold watches that brought in $1,000.

There are no national figures on total tonnage of airport items collected from passengers. Neither the TSA nor Harrisburg tracks the total.

But TSA spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said Newark Airport alone reports it collects four tons of prohibited items a year.

In what is no doubt one of the best-kept state secrets, other items are offered for sale at deep discounts at the commonwealth’s surplus store, about a mile from the Capitol.

The TSA collection occupies a small corner of the larger state warehouse store, where the public can buy furniture and computers and other office equipment jettisoned by the government.

It’s a curious collection of things travelers never meant to give up — souvenirs of trips to New York City and elsewhere that never made it home, sporting equipment that was to be used in faraway games or on vacation.

There is the mini Mets baseball bat, the “I [heart] New York” snow globe, the corkscrew with the words New Orleans and the image of a steamboat. The toy sword, the giant Zulu spear, the hefty hammer of Thor.

Scanning the array of items, one wonders: Was parting with these little mementos painful?

The TSA is quick to say these items are not seized, but rather are “voluntarily surrendered” by passengers. People have options, such as putting them in checked baggage, taking them back to their cars, or giving them to a friend, said Farbstein.

Then there are the things that state and federal TSA staff can’t believe people still try to take on board an airplane after the horrible events of 9/11:

Buckets of sports equipment; souvenir baseball bats; a wall display of scissors; barbecue tools; rolling pins; a wok; and the occasional, um, sex toy.

“Yes,” says Thompson, “we’ve gotten the furry handcuffs, too.”

Then there are the tools, oh, the tools. From tiny screwdrivers to power drills and masonry trowels.

And yes, more than a few box cutters.

“It’s an eye-opener,” said Farbstein, who herself in the early post-9/11 years tried to board with two Swiss Army knives and a mini baseball bat.

“The average person would be shocked at the volume of things that come in a decade after 9/11. Wouldn’t they think to leave them at home?”

Farbstein says anyone wondering if something can be brought on board an airliner can download a free “MyTSA” app or check online, where travelers can ask if a specific item passes muster or not.

Harrisburg also is the destination for things inadvertently left behind at TSA search points — no doubt, as hurried travelers bound through to catch their flights: suitcases, belts, pairs of laceless sneakers.

The baby car seats, canes, walkers, and wheelchairs give pause: How did the people relying on these items get home from the airport?

Those who know about the TSA stash come back regularly to see what’s new for the offing. Among them is Harrisburg resident John Bivins, who was rifling through a tub of $1 tools and tossing his finds into a box he’d brought.

“I’ve got my 17-year-old son a complete set of tools. It keeps him out of mine,” said Bivins, who drops by every other week. “A man can never have enough tools.”

Thompson said no travelers had yet traced their belongings to Harrisburg, but state workers have several times done such tracing, helping to reconnect travelers with lost items when they can, particularly those of sentimental value.

Thompson said that in one instance, they tracked a championship boxing ring to its owner — a former supermiddleweight World Boxing Association titleholder, Byron Mitchell, a.k.a. the Slama from ’Bama.

On another occasion, the state sleuths reunited a man with his wedding band.

The ring was hooked on a keychain that also carried an expired AAA tag. State workers found the man’s identity through the tag — and reunited the ring with its owner.

Contact Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or aworden@phillynews.com or follow on Twitter @inkyamy.


If You Go

Pennsylvania Surplus Distribution Center

2221 Forster St., Harrisburg, Pa.

Hours are 9 a.m. to 2:45 p.m. Monday to Friday. 717-787-6078.

SOURCE: Commonwealth of Pennsylvania

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