ATLANTA - (NBC) - AirTran Flight 421 was leaving the gate at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport Tuesday when the pilot turned the jet around and told passengers they had to go back.
There was a turtle on the plane.
The coin-sized reptile belonged to a 10-year-old girl who ended up having to leave her pet behind in the trash.
The Helm sisters were in better spirits Wednesday night as they played Wii in the living room of their Milwaukee home, but it was a different story Tuesday.
Ten-year-old Carley was distraught when AirTran officials in Atlanta turned their plane around to kick her tiny turtle "Bug" off the flight.
"He was like this big," she said forming a small circle with her little hands, adding that he was harmless.
That may be, but it is still against AirTran policy for a reptile to be on board, so the girls had to make a difficult decision.
"They said 'You can throw it in the garbage and get back on'," said eldest Helms sister, 22-year-old Rebecca. "We're like holding up the plane with a bunch of people on it, and we're under pressure. So they told us to throw the whole cage away, and then we got back on."
"I was sad," said Carley. "I didn't want it thrown away."
The trash can in the AirTran area was just about empty so the girls hoped that their dad, who was on the way back to the airport, would get there in time to rescue it.
But it was too late.
"Just discarding a little creature like that is inhumane," said William Helm. "Not allowing me to come back to retrieve the animal is the wrong decision."
AirTran vigorously denies making the girls toss the turtle, saying that the decision was made by the eldest sister.
Nonetheless, agents sifted through the trash trying to find it.
They didn't have any luck...until Wednesday night.
"We thought for a period of time that the turtle was lost," reported AirTran spokesman Christopher White. "We have found out later that an AirTran employee retrieved the turtle from the trash can, and it is safe and sound as we speak."
A customer service agent called Carley's mom to let her in on the good news.
Tamara Helm described the ordeal as a roller coaster ride that could have been avoided had the AirTran workers been a little more compassionate and a little more clear on their police banning reptiles.
Still, the girls are relieved that Bug the turtle is doing fine, having feasted on lettuce and tomatoes and other turtle treats.
As for the employee who found the turtle and took it home to her little boy, AirTran says it will replace the temporary pet with two others just like it.
The airline hopes that on Thursday, barring getting bumped again, the turtle will be the tiniest passenger in first class, or wherever VIP turtles get to sit.
This time, though, Bug will have a waiver to be on board.
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