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From Wedding Dresses to Ruby Slippers: a Peek Inside LIRR's Lost and Found

By Jill Colvin | September 12, 2012 7:04am

PENN STATION — Just five minutes after newlywed Catherine Koh got off the Long Island Rail Road, she realized she'd left her wedding dress behind.

She'd planned to store the priceless clothing at her in-laws' home. Instead, she watched the embodiment of the happiest day of her life roll into Long Island without her.

“I thought, ‘Oh no!'” said Koh, 35, a lawyer who lives on the Upper West Side.

Koh and her husband filed a report online, with little faith they'd ever see the dress again. Four days later, she received a call from the LIRR saying it had been found.

“Oh my gosh, [I was] so relieved," she said. “I was so pleasantly surprised.”

Koh's not alone, as Long Island Rail Road customers lose thousands of items each year.

If they’re lucky, the items find their way to a glorified storage closet deep inside Penn Station, which serves as the LIRR’s lost-and-found headquarters. DNAinfo.com New York recently got a sneak peek inside the operation and its collection, which includes items ranging from the mundane to the quirky to the outright bizarre.

Metal shelves in the storage area were stuffed floor-to-ceiling with lost luggage, misplaced sneakers and forgotten smartphones on a recent Friday. A  Spider-Man backpack sat near a Louis Vuitton  handbag, not far from a pink razor scooter, a hookah pipe and an oversized salad bowl.

“Anything you can just put down for a second and lose track of, those are the things that we get,” explained Henry Felton, 42, a Long Island resident who's run the lost and found for the past three-and-a-half years.

While cells phones, wallets, keys and umbrellas top the list of most-lost items, Felton said he and his fellow staffers have also seen their fair share of the unusual — from prosthetic legs to falseteeth to sex toys.

There have also been skateboards, surfboards and vintage video games — and even a pair of Dorothy’s  sparkly ruby red slippers,  part of a Halloween costume lost in June.

After three months, unclaimed items are boxed up and sold to a company based in Alabama that pays the MTA $35 per box, no matter what’s inside. The company then sells the items.

Others found items are worth big bucks.

Felton remembered a wedding ring set worth at least $10,000 and a Bible discovered with $5,000 cash tucked inside. Just this Labor Day, staff discovered a bag stuffed with $8,000 cash that's now being looked at by police.

They also get tons of books, but the title people come to the office most quickly to claim is "Fifty Shades of Grey."

“They don’t stick around long, boy,” Felton said with a laugh.

While many assume something lost on the train is gone forever, so far this year  the railroad's lost and found has returned 57 percent of the 10,207 items that have been turned in by staff and fellow passengers up from about 22 percent back in 2007, before its lost-and-found website launched.

Part of the reason for the LIRR's success is the extraordinary lengths staffers go to to return wayward belongings, including poring through wallets in search of clues about the identity of their owners, including names printed on receipts.

They've also contacted CVS stores, health clubs, insurance companies and libraries, using receipt transaction numbers to try to track down names.

"Sometimes you got to get 'CSI' on a bag," Felton explained. "You’ve got to really dig deep to find out what’s going on."

Of course, digging through people's belongings isn't always enjoyable.

“I’ve run into maggots, different paraphernalia, weapons,” recalled Felton, listing weighted leather blackjacks, brass knuckles and switchblades among what he's found.

Greg Grasso, 46, a printer who visited the window last week to report a lost iPhone case, said that in his years riding the railroad he's lucked out numerous times, including once having lost proofs turn up a month later labeled as someone's X-rays.

“If you keep coming, eventually most things will be found,” he said. “Most times you get it back.”

Staffers said lucky customers are often overwhelmed by emotion, crying, dancing and jumping up and down.

“They want to thank you. They want to buy you breakfast," said Felton.

“I’ve never seen one woman get so many flowers,” he said of his coworker, Barbara Moschos, whose been known to personally deliver found items on her way home for the day.

Staff have also learned some interesting tidbits about men and women.

“If you ask me, men lose more things than women,” Felton said. "No doubt about it. We’re dumb."

There are also certain lost items passengers shouldn't expect to see again, with nice golf umbrellas topping Felton's list.

“Forget about it," he said. "That’s like leaving a bar of gold."

Tips from the lost and found:

  • Alert the MTA. As soon as you lose an item, fill out an online LIRR lost-item form here. Make sure you leave as specific a description as possible.
  • Label your belongings.
  • Call lost phones repeatedly. “If you lost your phone, call it about five times in succession from whatever contact number you want us to use," Felton said. "We’ll see that in the incoming phone calls."
  • Avoid locking your phone.
  • Don't write off lost items immediately. “As long as everyone does their job," Felton said, "almost anything that gets lost can be returned."