(CNN) — The accidental discharge of a passenger’s weapon in a security area of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport caused widespread panic Saturday afternoon, prompting a brief halt of departing flights over the busy travel weekend.
The incident occurred around 1:30 p.m. ET when a “prohibited item” was detected in a passenger’s property while going through the X-ray screening at the security checkpoint, Robert Spinden, the Transportation Security Administration’s federal security director for Georgia, said in a news conference. The property was flagged for a “secondary search,” he said.
“During that secondary search, the passenger lunged into his property, grabbing a firearm that was located inside, which ultimately discharged,” Spinden said. “The passenger then fled the security checkpoint through an adjacent exit lane with his firearm.”
“We’re fortunate that when the firearm went off, nobody was seriously injured,” Spinden said.
Three people suffered non-life-threatening injuries, the TSA said in a statement. Atlanta police had previously said no injuries were reported.
According to a source familiar with the situation, the injured were not shot but instead hurt during the evacuation. All of the injured were adults, the source said, and two were transported to the hospital. The discharged round went into the property of the person who brought the weapon, the source said.
The individual whose weapon was discharged was identified as 42-year-old Kenny Wells, according to Atlanta Police Department Airport Precinct Commander Reginald L. Moorman.
“We have taken out warrants for carrying concealed a weapon at a commercial airport, possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, discharging a firearm and reckless conduct,” Moorman said. “We are actively pursuing this individual.”
Airports spokesperson Andrew Gobeil characterized the discharge as accidental and said the loud noise created a “sense of chaos.”
Airport officials and Atlanta Police know who the individual is, Gobeil told CNN’s Jim Acosta, because the incident occurred while the passenger was being screened.
Erika Zeidler, who was traveling from Atlanta to Anchorage, Alaska, said she was sitting in a restaurant in Concourse T when people began running down the hallway.
“We thought they were late for a flight, and then more and more people started running,” she told Acosta. “There was some screaming and then somebody stopped and said, ‘There’s a shooter, you need to go.'”
An investigation into the incident remains ongoing, Gobeil said.
A ground stop was called for the airport for all departing flights, per the Federal Aviation Administration, but was soon lifted.
Details about the weapon or circumstances surrounding the accidental discharge have not been made available.
The FBI and the ATF are “providing investigative assistance” to the Atlanta police, according to a spokesperson for the ATF. The White House is also “monitoring” the incident, a White House official said, referring questions to local law enforcement.
The shooting scare comes as the Thanksgiving travel period is getting underway. On Friday, TSA screened more than 2.2 million airport travelers across the country — the highest checkpoint volume for a single day since the pandemic began, according to a TSA spokesperson.
Witnesses recount chaos after scare
Witnesses described confusion and disarray as panic erupted in one of the world’s busiest airports.
Zeidler and others took shelter in a TGI Fridays restaurant, she said. Photos she shared on Twitter showed a crowd of people standing on the tarmac beneath a jetway as the incident unfolded.
Video posted on Twitter by Haşmet Asilkan showed people running out of the airport, telling others of a shooting that had taken place inside. Another video shared by Stephoń Stafford — who said he was about to go through security with his child — showed disorder inside, with a number of stanchions knocked over where people had previously been waiting in line.
Greg Romero had just gotten off a flight from Salt Lake City when he heard there was an emergency, he told CNN’s Fredricka Whitfield. Airport personnel “shut off all the escalators and cut off all passengers and turned off the tram,” said Romero, the father-in-law of CNN correspondent Nadia Romero.
“Right now airport personnel is doing a really good job keeping everybody calm,” he added.
A few travelers were “a little bit panicked but more frustrated,” Romero said. “They’re trying to catch flights, to get out of the airport. For the most part, people are just lined up against the walls.”
Dianne Callahan was traveling with her son and had just boarded her flight to New York when the crew closed the door to the plane. That’s when she said she heard screams outside the plane. She also heard sirens, Callahan said, but didn’t know what was going on.
“It was an extremely tense situation,” she said. “People were pushing to get on the plane that were not even on our flight. That’s how scared they were.”
Callahan and her son were then sent to go back through security, she said.
In response to the incident, Delta Air Lines, which is headquartered in Atlanta, announced it was issuing a travel waiver to assist impacted customers.
“With this, the fare difference for customers will be waived when rebooked travel occurs on or before Nov. 23, 2021, in the same cabin of service as originally booked,” the statement said.
“Delta is coordinating with TSA and Atlanta airport officials to accommodate customers as quickly and safely as possible,” the airline said. “We are also working to proactively accommodate customers who may have missed a flight.”
Firearms being found at airport checkpoints is ‘huge problem,’ per TSA
TSA Administrator David Pekoske recently told CNN that airline passengers bringing guns to the airport is a “huge problem.”
Last month, the agency reported catching 4,650 firearms — a majority of them loaded — at security checkpoints in the first 10 months of 2021. That number surpassed the full-year record of 4,432, set in 2019.
According to the TSA’s statement Saturday, 450 firearms have been detected at the Atlanta airport’s checkpoints alone in 2021.
“You cannot take a loaded firearm or an unloaded firearm through the security checkpoint at any airport in the country,” Page Pate, a Georgia criminal defense attorney and constitutional lawyer, told CNN’s Pamela Brown. Generally, a fine that can be several thousand dollars would be imposed under federal regulations, Pate said.
“It can also be referred for criminal prosecution to the state where the airport is,” Pate said. “But in Georgia, if you have a carry permit, the security staff just needs to notify you that you’ve left a gun in your bag, and then you just take it out of the airport. So you’re rarely prosecuted for doing something like this, especially in Georgia, which has very pro-gun right-type legislation on the books.”
Saturday’s incident “underscores the importance of checking personal belongings for dangerous items before leaving the airport,” the TSA said.
“Firearms, particularly loaded firearms, introduce an unnecessary risk at checkpoints,” the agency said, “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.”
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