ATLANTA – A passenger awaiting a bag search at a major Atlanta airport checkpoint climbed into a bag and grabbed a firearm that went off, causing havoc among travelers and causing a temporary ground stop for FAA flights on Saturday afternoon, officials said. Then he fled.
According to the Department of Transportation Security, the man, later identified as a convicted criminal, escaped with a pistol from the checkpoint and escaped through the exit from the airport. The authorities stated that this was not an incident with an active shooter and described the shot as accidental.
Police said they later issued an arrest warrant for the passenger, 42-year-old convicted felon Kenny Wells.
The airport police commander, Major Reginald Moorman, said Wells is wanted on charges including carrying concealed weapons at a commercial airport, possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, using a firearm and reckless behavior.
“As we speak, we are actively pursuing this man,” Murman said in a briefing Saturday night with TSA and airport officials.
The discharge caused a stir on social media as alarmed travelers posted videos on Twitter and other online sites showing and describing moments of chaos and confusion at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, one of the busiest in the country. As a precautionary measure, commuter rail connections to the airport were briefly stopped.
Authorities said three people sustained minor injuries, including one who fell in an airport atrium far from the checkpoint and two complaining of shortness of breath.
No one was shot, the TSA chief added.
“We were lucky that when the shot was fired, no one was seriously injured,” said Robert Spinden, director of the Georgian Federal Security Service, at a briefing at the airport. Officials did not immediately disclose the type of weapon.
Social media users reported that some had long lines at security and missed flights. The incident comes ahead of the peak Thanksgiving holiday season as people are still coping with frustration and fears about safe travel during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Although the FAA ordered a temporary stop on the ground, airport officials said operations never stopped and the airport did not close. The airport was back to normal operation in less than two hours, they said.
The TSA said in a statement that it all started when a passenger was about to go through an officer’s baggage search at 1:30 pm at the airport’s main checkpoint after an X-ray scan revealed what was described as a “prohibited item.”
“He advised the passenger not to touch the property, and when he opened the compartment with a prohibited item, the passenger threw himself into the bag and grabbed the firearm, after which it was discharged. Then the passenger left the area, ”the statement said.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that social media users rushed out of the airport in chaos after hearing gun shots. One video posted on Twitter showed people running out of the terminal, some looking around anxiously or looking in apparent confusion.
After Atlanta police made it clear that normal operations at the airport resumed by 3:30 pm, TSA said all passengers should be re-checked.
The TSA said the incident underscores the importance for all passengers to check their personal belongings for dangerous items before leaving for the airport. Passengers caught with firearms at airport checkpoints face civil punishment. The TSA says firearms can be allowed in checked baggage if they are unloaded and packed in a locked box with hard sides.
Last month, federal officials reported a spike in firearm seizures at Atlanta airport – part of a record year for the number of weapons found at airport checkpoints.
TSA reported that 391 firearms were seized at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in the first nine months of 2021. This is more than last year, when the number of passengers dropped significantly due to the pandemic. But it’s also a big jump from 2019, when 323 firearms were seized in Atlanta.
Nationwide, TSA reported that 4,495 air passengers were not allowed to carry firearms on their flights by October 3 this year, surpassing the previous record of 4,432 firearms caught at checkpoints for all of 2019.
The agency announced the 2021 figures in a press release and noted that the record has been reached despite the continuing drop in passenger numbers due to the pandemic. There was no explanation or theory in the press release about the surge in weapons seizures.
Hartsfield-Jackson is one of the busiest airports in the country, although other US airports are on a par with the number of passenger checks. Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport was second on the TSA’s list, with 232 firearms seized by October 3.