The chaos that unfolded at Atlanta’s international airport on Saturday was caused by a passenger who snatched a gun from his bag during security screening, authorities have said, and accidentally fired a shot.
The man then fled the security checkpoint area at Hartfield-Jackson airport as panic erupted in the terminals. He was later identified as convicted felon Kenny Wells, according to a statement from the Transportation Security Administration.
The bag search was prompted by an X-ray scan that detected a “prohibited item”. A TSA employee took the bag aside for further inspection.
“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 TSA statement.
Police have issued a warrant for the arrest of the passenger and continue to search for him.
The airport’s police commander, Major Reginald Moorman, said that Wells was being sought on charges including carrying a concealed weapon at a commercial airport, possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, discharging a firearm, and reckless conduct.
“We are actively pursuing this individual as we speak,” Major Moorman said at a news briefing on Saturday with TSA and airport officials.
The incident prompted a temporary ground stop of flights on Saturday as airport officials rushed to quell rumours of an active shooter in the terminal.
Alarmed travellers posted videos on social media revealing moments of chaos and confusion at one of the nation’s busiest airports. A commuter rail link to the airport also was briefly halted as a precaution.
Authorities said three people suffered minor injuries including one person who fell in the airport’s atrium area, away from the checkpoint, and two complaining of shortness of breath.
No one was shot, a TSA executive added.
“We were fortunate that when the firearm went off, no one was seriously injured," Robert Spinden, the TSA’s director of federal security for Georgia, said. Officials didn’t immediately disclose the type of weapon involved.
Social media users reported that the incident had led to long lines for security and some missed flights. The incident came ahead of peak Thanksgiving holiday travel season, which is already proving more complex for passengers due to the ongoing Covid pandemic.
Although the Federal Aviation Administration ordered a temporary ground stop, the airport did not close and normal operations returned in under two hours, officials said.
Operations resumed at the airport around 3.30pm. All passengers had to be re-screened.
A passenger being stopped with a firearm is not a rare occurrence, according to TSA figures. In the first nine months of 2021, the TSA said it seized 391 firearms at Hartsfield-Jackson airport. That’s up from 220 last year when passenger counts were down significantly because of the pandemic. But it’s also a jump from 2019, when 323 firearms were seized in Atlanta.
Nationwide, the TSA had stopped 4,495 airline passengers from carrying firearms onto their flights by 3 October of this year, surpassing the previous record of 4,432 firearms intercepted at checkpoints in all of 2019.
It is unclear what is causing the spike in gun seizures but the TSA notes it is happening despite a continued dip in passenger numbers.
The TSA said the Atlanta incident underscores the importance for all passengers of checking personal belongings for dangerous items before leaving for the airport. Passengers caught with firearms at airport checkpoints face a civil penalty.
Firearms are allowed in checked baggage when they are unloaded and packed in a locked, hard-sided case.
With reporting from the Associated Press
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