ATLANTA >> A passenger facing a search at the Atlanta airport’s main security checkpoint lunged into a bag and grabbed a firearm, and the gun went off, causing chaos among travelers and prompting a temporary groundstop on flights to the airport Saturday afternoon, federal authorities said.
The passenger immediately fled the security station, running out an airport exit, the Transportation Security Administration said in a statement, adding it was not an active shooter incident.
The discharge, initially described as accidental, caused a frenzy on social media by panicked travelers who posted videos to Twitter and other sites of the resulting chaos at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, one of the world’s busiest.
Neither passengers nor employees were in any danger, airport officials said.
It wasn’t immediately known if the passenger was stopped or detained but operations at one of the world’s busiest airports were disrupted at least two hours while an investigation continued.
TSA referred all further questions to Atlanta police, who had no immediate update Saturday evening on whether the passenger had been taken into custody. 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,” the statement said.
It added that TSA’s leadership and local airport officials decided to impose a temporary ground stop while Atlanta Police Department investigated further.
The TSA statement said three passengers received non-life-threatening injuries in the chaos. TSA said the three people hurt in the chaos were not shot. But they didn’t elaborate on their injuries.
Normal operations resumed at the airport about 3:30 p.m.
Airport officials have not confirmed how many shots were fired, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.
Social media users reported the airport disruptions meant long lines and missed flights by travelers. It came just ahead of the peak Thanksgiving holiday travel season as travelers still are coping with the frustrations and concerns of safely traveling during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
TSA said all passengers in the airport were being re-screened.
“This incident underscores the importance of checking personal belongings for dangerous items before leaving for the airport. Firearms, particularly loaded firearms, introduce an unnecessary risk at checkpoints, have no place in the passenger cabin of an airplane, and represent a very costly mistake for the passengers who attempt to board a flight with them,” TSA said in its statement.
Of the guns confiscated at airport security checkpoints across the nation last year, about 83% were loaded. As of Oct. 3, more firearms had been recovered at Hartsfield-Jackson’s security checkpoints this year than at any other U.S. airport.
Twitter users report that they heard more than one gunshot, though airport officials have not confirmed how many shots were fired.
MARTA service to the airport closed for much of Saturday afternoon but has since resumed, the agency posted on Twitter. A ground stop temporarily halted flights at other airports around the country that were bound for Atlanta.