SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA – Omer Petti and Madge Woodward expected the alarms to go off at the airport security’s metal detector when they were flying home to Detroit after visiting family recently near San Diego.
After all, Petti, who is 95 years old, has two artificial knees and Woodward, at 85, has had her hip replaced. But they sure didn’t expect to be subjected to accusations, extreme pat-downs, and most importantly, to be missing $300 in cash.
“Can you imagine an 85-year-old lady and 95-year-old retired Air Force Major in wheelchairs being treated like terrorists?” Petti asked recently sitting in the kitchen of the Bloomfield Township home he shares with Woodward.
On March 29 Petti and Woodward arrived at the San Diego International airport at 10 a.m. for a flight scheduled to leave at 11:36 a.m. As usual, Petti and Woodward removed their shoes, jackets and sweaters and put these along with their other belongings — belt buckles, carry on bags, purse and jewelry, including Petti’s money clip — into a total of four rubber bins.
Petti says a security officer asked him to remove Kleenex and $300 in folded bills that he had in his pocket and send it through the detector. “I hesitated and said: ‘You really want me to put my bills in there?’ ” Petti said. The officer said yes, so Petti put the cash into a fifth bin. Then he and Woodward proceeded through the metal detector.
After both set off alarms, they were patted down. Then, a security officer did a litmus test on Petti’s clothing, which tested positive for nitrates. Petti explained that he carries nitroglycerin pills for his heart. Nonetheless, Petti was taken to a private room for yet another pat-down by a different officer while the same security officer emptied their carry-on bags and rifled through every item.
“When I was patted down, I’ve never before been touched in every part of my body before,” Woodward said.
As the search went on, the couple — both widowed who met a few years ago at a bridge game and fell in love — became increasingly concerned about missing their flight.
Finally, they were released and told to retrieve their belongings. But only four bins were handed over to them. When Petti inquired about his $300, a senior security official was called over. Petti says this officer insinuated that they were mistaken about the missing cash, instructing the two to take off their shoes again, check their pockets again. “When I told him we were going to miss our flight he asked me if I was objecting or refusing his request.” Petti says. “I said: ‘No, I’d do anything I was asked, I would just like to know where my $300 went.’ “
Finally, Petti says the officer promised they would check their video cameras to see what happened to the fifth bin and he would advise the Transportation Security Administration manager in Detroit so that they could briefed when they arrived. Then came the mad dash for the plane. “The wheel chair attendant literally ran the two of us by himself with both wheel chairs down to the gate, endangering us and anybody who got in our way,” says Petti.
“I think I was scammed,” Petti says. “I would like my money back, but money doesn’t pay for all the stress and humiliation.”
In the weeks since, Petti has filed a police report with the San Diego Harbor Police. He’s written a lengthy letter addressed to the airport federal security director in San Diego and he’s copied politicians: local and national, including President Obama. And he is in the process of filling out a four-page “Tort Claim Package” as required by the TSA.
Nobody, he says, is giving him a straight answer. “The police said they went and reviewed the videotapes but they were too blurry,” Petti says. Petti’s son Bill, who is helping his father, doubts that. “You can bet if my father were a terrorist, those videos would not be too blurry.”
For their part, the San Diego Harbor Police declined to comment on Petti’s case. Jim Fostenos, a spokesman in the TSA’s Office of Strategic Communications and Public Affairs said only: “They are looking into the case in San Diego. That’s all I have for you.”
Says Bill Petti: “The bottom line is my dad’s money went missing. Someone in the TSA or the next passenger took it. Either way, treating a 95-year-old like that is inexcusable.”