You never know when you’re going to become a big damn hero. Alaska Airlines fight attendant Sheila Federick was at work on a normal flight from Seattle to San Francisco when she rescued a teenage girl from human trafficking thanks to a keen eye and a resourceful bit of subterfuge.
According to NBC News, Federick said she had a gut instinct that something was wrong when she saw an older man flying with a young teenage girl. The older man was well-dressed and sitting on the aisle, while the girl was sitting between him and the window. She had greasy hair and “looked like she had been through pure hell,” Federick recalls.
The extreme difference between the two passengers made Federick pay attention, and when she went up to make conversation, the way flight attendants often do, the man reportedly got defensive with her. The man’s reaction seemed to cement Federick’s fears, but she had no safe way to get in touch with the girl. Then she had an idea, and she left a note in the airplane’s bathroom to let the girl know that she could help.
When Federick went back in after the girl had used the restroom, she saw that the girl had written, “I need help” on the back of the note.
Federick told the pilots, who contacted the airport. When the plane landed, police were waiting at the gate.
Federick rescued that girl in 2011, but she is in the news again as part of a push to raise awareness of human trafficking and the benefits that can be achieved by training flight attendants to spot trafficking cases and to help the victims without putting themselves or others at risk. Federick saved that girl not only because her “gut instinct” told her something was wrong, but because she actually did something about it. A lot of people might have shrugged it off and thought, “She’s probably just a surly teen.” But Federick went with it, and the idea of leaving a note in the bathroom was brilliant.
Human trafficking happens in the U.S.. 400 human trafficking victims were identified last year alone, and 4,000 human traffickers were arrested, and those are just the ones officials know about. Flight attendants like Federick are one of the best lines of defense against human trafficking, and that’s why anti-human trafficking organizations are working to train more flight attendants on how to spot potential trafficking situations, and what to do when they see them.