TSA is investigating traveler’s complaint about agent opening and spilling ashes at Orlando airport checkpoint.
By Henry Pierson Curtis
Moments earlier, Gross’s carry-on bag had passed through an X-ray machine at Orlando International Airport when he said he heard someone call out, “Bag check.”
It was about 7:25 a.m. June 19 and he was booked on an 8 a.m. United Express connecting flight to Newark and then home to Indianapolis with a small glass jar of his grandfather Mario “Mark” Marcaletti’s cremated remains.
But that’s when he said a female Transportation Security Administration agent wearing blue latex gloves opened his bag, twisted open the jar labeled, “Human Remains,” and accidentally spilled at least a quarter of its contents.
“I thought it was routine at first and then I thought, ‘What the hell was she doing this for?'” Gross said Tuesday in a telephone interview with The Orlando Sentinel. “I got upset. She was laughing right at me — not a chuckle — she was laughing.”
Sari Koshetz, a TSA spokeswoman in Miami, said the agency is investigating the incident to find out what happened.
“We have been unable to reach the family to learn more about their perspective on the incident, however, our initial review concluded that the circumstances as described in some reports are inconsistent with what we believe transpired,” Koshetz wrote in a later email to the Sentinel.
TSA policy permits passengers to carry cremated remains aboard aircraft as long as the containers undergo X-ray inspection.
“We understand how painful losing a loved one is, and we respect anyone traveling with crematory remains,” states the cremated remains policy on the TSA website. “Out of respect to the deceased and their family and friends, under no circumstances will an officer open the container even if the passenger requests this to be done.”
Dropping to the floor after the spill, Gross said he reached for all the bigger pieces of remains but there was no way to collect everything without a dustpan and broom.
The TSA agent kept laughing without offering help, he said. And passengers waiting to get their bags were stalled behind him as he spent 10 to 15 seconds on his knees grabbing what he could, Gross said.
“I didn’t want to cause a scene because I didn’t want them to throw me off my flight or put me on the no-fly list,” said Gross, 30, a restaurant manager. “It didn’t really hit me until I got on the plane.”
During a three-hour layover in Newark, Gross said he spoke to TSA officials there who were apologetic about what happened and gave him a telephone number for a TSA manager at OIA. During a brief telephone call with TSA’s Orlando office, Gross said a woman told him she would speak to TSA agents about how to handle human remains.
“She basically hung up on me because there was nothing she could do,” Gross said. “I don’t want anything. All I want is an apology. And I want to understand where they get off treating people like this.”
Gross had spent two weeks in Central Florida visiting his uncle and aunt, Walt and Nancy Gross of Deltona, who gave him the jar of ashes. It’s a close family that descended from his grandfather, a Sicilian immigrant who moved to Indiana, took a job with the Penn Central Railroad and became a Chicago Cubs fan until his death at 91 in 2002.
“My grandpa I’m sure is up there in heaven laughing about this. I’m wondering who stepped in his ashes and where they are now. Maybe a little bit made it to Cubs’ stadium,” Gross said. “You’ve got to laugh about it but when you get down to it, it’s not a laughing matter.”