Superbowl traffickers: How hero hostie saved young girl
IT ALL started with a glance.
Flight attendant Shelia Fedrick was working on an Alaska Airlines flight from Seattle to San Francisco when something in the cabin caught her eye.
It was a girl, about 14 or 15 years old and with greasy blonde hair, who was sitting by the window of aisle 10. She looked dishevelled.
She was flying with a much older man, who was sitting beside her and remarkably well-dressed.
The difference in age and appearance between the travelling companions seemed odd to Fedrick. But she was especially struck by the demeanour of the girl, who she would later say looked like "she had been through pure hell".
The veteran flight attendant instinctively felt something was wrong. Her suspicions were further raised when she tried to chat with the pair: the man became defensive and the girl refused to make eye contact or speak.
Fedrick was convinced something wasn't right and quickly came up with a plan.
Muttering under her breath, Fedrick convinced the girl to go to the bathroom, where the flight attendant had left her a note stuck to the mirror.
"She wrote back on the note," Fedrick told NBC News, "and said: 'I need help'."
Fedrick alerted the pilot, who alerted the police. By the time the flight touched down in San Francisco, police were waiting at the terminal.
It was then revealed the girl was the victim of human trafficking and Fedrick had just saved her life.
"I've been a flight attendant for ten years and it's like I am going all the way back to when I was in training. And I was like, I could have seen these young girls and young boys and didn't even know," Fedrick told Florida broadcaster WTSP.
"If you see something, say something."
Major events in the United States, especially the Super Bowl, have traditionally been linked with a spike in prostitution and, along with it, human trafficking.
It's also a year-round problem. Last year, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested 2000 human traffickers and identified 400 victims.
And the role perceptive flight attendants, such as Fedrick, can play in stopping these crimes is becoming more and more recognised.
Airline Ambassadors, a US-based group that trains flight attendants on how to spot and report victims of human trafficking on flights, has been working with crew members in Houston, Texas ahead of the city hosting today's Super Bowl LI, NBC reports.
The flight attendants have learnt to look for passengers who seem frightened, ashamed or nervous, those travelling with older people who don't appear to be a parent or relative, and children and adults who bear signs of physical abuse or having been drugged.
They've also been told to take note if someone speaks for an alleged victim or becomes defensive when questioned.
And just as importantly, they've been instructed to resist the temptation to rescue a victim, and instead tell the pilot, who can alert authorities. That's sometimes the hardest part, Airline Ambassador trainer and Alaska Airlines crew member Andrea Hobart told NBC.
"One part of our training, and it's the difficult part, but once we report it, we're supposed to let it go," she said.
"Even though it's hard to let it go, you transfer it into the hands of the authorities and they'll pursue the case."
Fedrick said she has since been in touch with the dishevelled young girl she helped rescue from a sex trafficker on the Alaska Airlines flight in 2011.
"I put my phone number on the note that I left for her and I guess she memorised it, so a few weeks later, she called me," she said.
She said the young girl is now a college student.