Grieving boy gets dad's shirt back thanks to Delta

Jeff Haynes / Today
Delta airlines file photo.

Delta Air Lines is getting kudos from a North Dakota family after the carrier helped reunite a first-grader with a precious memento he left behind on a plane.

Cole Holzer is only 7 but he’s already been touched by tragedy. His father fell in the family’s garage about a month before Christmas in 2010, hit his head and died in what friends described as a freak accident. Cole’s mom, Tonya Holzer, said the boy was desperate to hang on to the grey Nike T-shirt his dad was wearing when he last saw him.

“When we were in the hospital, he just wanted that shirt,” Holzer told NBC News.

“He was attached to that shirt and so we went back and got it for him and he’s used it for bedtime ever since.”

When Cole is sad, he lays the shirt out, sprays it with his dad’s cologne and wraps himself in it.

In late March, Holzer and her three kids left their home just outside of Fargo, N.D., and headed to San Diego for a vacation. Cole had his dad’s T-shirt with him on the Delta flight to California, but when the family landed and drove off in a rental car, he suddenly noticed it was missing.

“He started to cry and scream,” Holzer said. “I looked back when we got off the airplane and I didn’t see anything sitting there so I don’t know if it fell under the seat or what.”

Enter Kelly Cruchet, a family friend and frequent flier. Holzer called her with a simple question: what do you do when you lose an item on the plane?

“Of course, my heart sunk immediately thinking it was Cole’s daddy’s shirt and that’s exactly what it was,” Cruchet said.

“Cole was just devastated, he was so sad. And I just said, don’t worry about it, we’re going to find it.”

Cruchet contacted Delta and was put in touch with the airline’s lost and found agent at San Diego International. She told the woman about the boy and the memento he's clung to since his father’s death and both women ended up crying on the phone, Cruchet recalled.

A search and rescue mission was soon under way.

The agent checked with the crew that cleaned the plane, which had already left San Diego, but no one remembered seeing the T-shirt. The next step: sifting through the trash that was removed from the aircraft after the Holzer family’s flight.

Cruchet got the good news soon after: the T-shirt was there in a garbage bag. Cole would not have to mourn the loss of the top that’s meant so much to him since his father’s death.

“At that point, I called Tonya back and told her they had found it. I was a wreck, she started crying, and everyone was so excited.”

Delta said it was glad to help out the family.

“When something is as sentimental as this goes missing, our employees are empowered and usually know to take it upon themselves to do whatever they can to reunite people with items such as this,” said Delta spokesman Michael Thomas.

Cruchet was so grateful to the airline that she penned an open letter praising each employee she encountered during the search.

“Delta allowed a daddy to still be there for his little boy…even if he can’t be with him on earth,” she wrote.

Meanwhile, Holzer drove back with her kids to San Diego International to pick up the T-shirt. Cole was pretty excited to get the top back, she said, and he just cuddled with it in the back of the car.

Cruchet was relieved her friend and the boy were spared more trauma.

“It was just really cool, I definitely feel like everything aligned perfectly on this one,” she said.