Frantic mom separated from child; caring Phoenix TSA officer uses sleuthing skills, reunites family

Tuesday, January 16, 2024
PHX TSA Officer Erica Vinegar (Photo by Alejandra Villa)

An ordinary day took an extraordinary shift for a TSA officer at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX).

An American Airlines employee and a concerned passenger approached TSA Officer Erica Vinegar who was on her way to the Terminal 4 B checkpoint. They found a lost child, separated from her parents, and sought Vinegar's help.

In a display of community and compassion, Vinegar, without hesitation, promised she would do everything in her power to find the parents and ensure the young girl’s safety.

“I really had no time to think,” Vinegar recalled. “Although the young girl was in a good spirit and seemed to not have a care in the world, I wanted to make sure I didn’t make her nervous by showing too much concern.”

PHX Terminal 4 Checkpoint B (Photo by Alejandra Villa)
PHX Terminal 4 Checkpoint B (Photo by Alejandra Villa)

Taking charge, Vinegar escorted the child to Checkpoint B where she informed Supervisory TSA Officer Kris Whitler. Recognizing the gravity of the situation, Whitler contacted the Phoenix Airport Police Department for immediate assistance.

While waiting for police to respond, Vinegar engaged with the young girl to gather crucial information to help find the child’s parents.

Although the girl knew her mother’s name, she was unable to provide the last name, prompting Vinegar to gently probe a little deeper.

“I immediately began asking her where she was going and if she was going home or going on vacation,” Vinegar explained. “That is when she said she was going back home to Morgan Hill.”

A native of California’s Bay Area, Vinegar recognized Morgan Hill as being just outside the San Jose area. Trusting her instincts and leveraging her familiarity with her hometown, Vinegar, who grew up just 40 minutes from Morgan Hill, deduced that the family's destination was likely San Jose International Airport (SJC).

“So, assuming the family would be flying into SJC, we searched the listings of flights and found the gate a San Jose flight was departing from,” Vinegar noted. “The girl also shared she was 7 years old.”

With this valuable information, Vinegar collaborated with Supervisory Officer Richard Bartley. Bartley rushed to the gate where they found the distressed mother seeking help from the gate agent to locate her missing daughter.

PHX TSA Officer Erica Vinegar (Photo by Aida Chavez)
PHX TSA Officer Erica Vinegar (Photo by Aida Chavez)

Phoenix police arrived just in time to witness the heartwarming reunion of the lost child with her parents.

“You could see the worry and relief in her parents’ eyes once they were reunited with the young girl,” said Vinegar.

Vinegar's quick thinking, compassion and local knowledge played a pivotal role in ensuring a happy ending to what could have been a distressing situation.

“Erica’s actions were nothing short of exemplary,” emphasized PHX TSA Federal Security Director Jerry Agnew. “Going above and beyond to locate the lost child’s parents, especially when faced with the challenge of the child not knowing their own last name demonstrates exceptional commitment to duty and empathy.”

Agnew said Vinegar’s actions also reflect TSA PHX’s values – care, grace and compassion.

“Handling situations like this requires a combination of empathy, effective communication and quick thinking,” he said. “As both a TSA executive and a parent, incidents like this resonate deeply. It underscores the significance of maintaining a secure and supportive environment for all passengers. It also reaffirms our commitment to ongoing training and development, ensuring our team is well-prepared to handle unforeseen circumstances with the utmost professionalism and care.”

Vinegar, who will celebrate her four-year anniversary at TSA in February, advises other TSA officers “to always remain calm and remember to always use your network.”

“You may not have many years of work experience, but we all have resources and knowledge we can tap into and use when we come across uncertain situations,” she said. “I would like to send a huge shout-out to the many officers who have found themselves in similar situations. They stepped up and went out of the way to help in any capacity but may not be recognized for it. Just know you are much appreciated and needed.”

By Alejandra Villa, TSA Phoenix, and Don Wagner, TSA Strategic Communications & Public Affairs