A passenger undergoing a search at the Atlanta airport’s main security checkpoint reached into a bag and grabbed a firearm, and it went off, causing chaos among travelers and prompting a temporary ground stop on flights Saturday afternoon, authorities said.
The passenger immediately ran from the checkpoint and fled out an airport exit, the Transportation Security Administration said in a statement, adding it was not an active shooter incident.
The discharge, described as accidental, caused a frenzy on social media as alarmed travelers posted videos to Twitter and other online sites of the moments of chaos at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, one of the nation’s busiest.
Three people were hurt in the chaos, but the injuries were not life-threatening and no one was shot, the TSA said without elaborating.
Social media users said the disruption meant long lines and missed flights for some afterward. The incident comes ahead of the peak Thanksgiving holiday travel season as travelers are still coping with the frustrations and concerns of safely traveling during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
It wasn’t immediately known if the fleeing passenger was subsequently stopped or the firearm recovered. But airport operations were disrupted for at least two hours while an investigation continued. Neither passengers nor employees were in any danger, airport officials said.
TSA referred all further questions to Atlanta police, who had no immediate update Saturday evening on the passenger’s whereabouts. An Associated Press email message to Atlanta police was not immediately returned.
The TSA statement said the passenger was about to undergo a bag search by an official at 1:30 p.m. at the airport’s main checkpoint after an X-ray scan detected what was described as a “prohibited item.”
“He advised the passenger not to touch the property, and as he opened the compartment containing the prohibited item, the passenger lunged into the bag and grabbed a firearm, at which point it discharged. The passenger then fled the area,” according to the statement.
Authorites have not confirmed whether it was one or just how many shots that discharged. But airport officials and the TSA said they decided to impose a temporary ground stop at the airport while Atlanta police investigated.
Atlanta police gave the all-clear and normal operations resumed at the airport by 3:30 p.m. Subsequently TSA said all passengers in the airport were re-screened.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported social media users rushed from the airport in the chaos after hearing the noise of the gun going off. One video posted on Twitter showed people running out of the terminal, some anxiously glancing back.
“This incident underscores the importance of checking personal belongings for dangerous items before leaving for the airport,” the TSA statement said, calling that “a very costly mistake” for passengers who attempt to board a flight with them.
Passengers caught with firearms at airport checkpoints face a civil penalty. The TSA says firearms may be allowed in checked baggage when they are unloaded and packed in a locked, hard-sided case.
Last month, federal officials reported a spike in firearm seizures at Atlanta’s airport — part of a record year for the number of guns detected at airport security checkpoints.
The Transportation Security Administration said it seized 391 firearms at Hartsfield-Jackson airport in the first nine months of 2021. That’s up from 220 last year when passenger counts were down significantly because of the pandemic. But it’s also a big jump from 2019, when 323 firearms were seized in Atlanta.
Across the nation, the TSA said, it had stopped 4,495 airline passengers from carrying firearms onto their flights by Oct. 3 of this year, surpassing the previous record of 4,432 firearms caught at checkpoints in all of 2019.
The agency announced the 2021 figures in a news release and noted the record comes despite a continued dip in passengers because of the pandemic. The release did not offer an explanation or theory about the spike in gun seizures.
Hartsfield-Jackson is one of the nation’s busiest airports, though other US airports rival its passenger screening numbers. Dallas Forth Worth International Airport was second on the TSA’s list, with 232 firearms seized by Oct. 3.