3 Minnesotans find needles in sandwiches on Delta flights

Three Minnesotans aboard two Delta Air Lines flights from Amsterdam on Sunday bit into turkey sandwiches that contained inch-long needles, prompting an international investigation led by the FBI.

Jim Tonjes of Plymouth and Jack Drogt of St. Paul say they found the sewing-like needles in sandwiches on their flight to Minneapolis. Tonjes said he bit on the needle, which punctured the roof of his mouth.

Drogt's 16-year-old son, William, who was on a flight to Atlanta, also found a needle in his turkey sandwich. Two other needles were found, one on a second flight to Atlanta and one on a flight to Seattle, the airline said.

Tonjes, 57, of Plymouth, said his flight was about 90 minutes out of Minneapolis when he took a bite out of his sandwich and felt a sharp poke in his mouth.

"I figured it might be a toothpick," he said. Instead, he pulled out a 1-inch needle that had punctured the roof of his mouth. "It looked like a sewing needle but without an eye. ... I was in shock. I thought, 'Oh, my God.' It's the last thing you expect in a sandwich."

Once the plane landed in Minneapolis, Tonjes said, an ambulance was going to be summoned to take him to the hospital. But he shrugged that off and promised that he would go to the emergency room on his own after federal authorities interviewed him for three hours.

"It was the FBI and then someone else would come in and flash a badge. And then someone else would come in."

Tonjes then spent another three hours being examined in a hospital emergency room. "I'm on strong medication for a month and will be monitored for up to 90 days for viral diseases -- hepatitis and HIV," Tonjes said. The FBI also will be testing the needles for contamination.

Tonjes, who said he's traveled more than 10 million miles all over the world, said he's not going to worry. "You can't really do anything," he said. "You just hope for the best. ... This is something you never expect to happen."

Drogt, 55, an orthopedic surgeon with Summit Orthopedics, was on an eight-hour flight back from a two-week vacation in the Netherlands when, like other business-class passengers, he was offered a choice of a small turkey sandwich or salad.

"I took a few bites, and on the third bite, I hit something hard," he said. "I thought it was a bone and pulled it out. It was a pin about an inch long, sharp on both ends. I called the stewardess over and informed her. She was appropriately surprised and immediately said, 'That's funny -- a guy on the other side of the plane just had the same thing happen.'"

Flight attendants quickly and "discreetly" passed through the cabin to collect sandwiches, he said.

Meanwhile, Drogt's wife, Karen, and their son, William, along with their daughter, had flown from Amsterdam to Atlanta, planning to go on to the Drogts' second home in Florida.

"I called my wife on my cell because of course we were going to call each other when we landed, and told her about what happened, and she said, 'Guess what? William found a needle in his turkey sandwich on our flight, too.'"

Calling that news "uncanny," Drogt said they then knew that it was "a deliberate act," and he went to the airport police headquarters to report it to the FBI agent who had already interviewed him.

No follow-up calls

"The agent said, 'This is much bigger than we thought,'" Drogt said. "Subsequently we found out that there were other flights that needles were found on."

In the day and a half since the incident, Drogt said, he has received no follow-up calls from the FBI, the Transportation Security Administration or from Delta. "I'm kind of puzzled that Delta hasn't called, at least," he said.

He said the incident made him deeply concerned about airline food safety.

"I had asked one of the stewardesses if the pilots get served the same food, and she said she thought they might," he said. "That is really concerning. If someone in Amsterdam did this deliberately, how could such a thing be prevented, especially to protect the cockpit crews?" he said.

Patrick Hogan, spokesman for the Metropolitan Airports Commission, said Monday that the FBI is leading a criminal investigation into the matter. Delta spokeswoman Kristin Baur said the airline is cooperating fully.

The sandwiches were made in the Amsterdam kitchen of catering company Gate Gourmet and were to be served to business-class passengers on Delta flights.

Gate Gourmet spokeswoman Christina Ulosevich said the company has gotten no reports of similar incidents on any of the other airlines it serves out of Amsterdam. She said the company did not yet know how the needles got into the sandwiches.

Gate Gourmet issued a statement saying, "We take this matter very seriously, and we have launched our own full-scale investigation." It also said it was "heightening our already stringent safety and security procedures, to prevent any recurrence."

Tonjes said Monday that doesn't plan to let the incident change his travel habits.

"[Bad] things can happen anywhere, anytime," he said. "There's a risk to everything. It's just disappointing that something like this happens."

The Associated Press contributed to this report. mlsmith@startribune.com • 612-673-4788 pmiller@startribune.com • 612-673-4290

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