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Atlanta's airport had an active shooter scare as millions prepare for holiday travel

A TSA employee screens travelers at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, Ga., November 2007. TSA is expecting to screen 20 million travelers this Thanksgiving season.
A TSA employee screens travelers at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, Ga., November 2007. TSA is expecting to screen 20 million travelers this Thanksgiving season.

Updated November 20, 2021 at 10:17 PM ET

Rumors of an active shooter at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport left travelers scared and confused Saturday until the airport announced a firearm had been accidentally discharged.

The reports of an active shooter were posted on Twitter as early as 1:30 p.m. ET by passengers as well as concerned family and friends of those traveling through the international hub. The airport's official Twitter page posted at 1:57 p.m., almost half an hour after the chaos began, that there wasn't a shooting underway.

"At approximately 1:30 pm today a weapon accidently discharged at ATL's security screening area. There is NOT an active shooter at the airport," the airport tweeted. "APD is on the scene. More information about the situation will be made available on our social media channels."

The Transportation Security Administration said in a later statement that an individual had been undergoing a bag search at the airport's main security checkpoint when a TSA official opened a compartment carrying a gun.

"The passenger lunged into the bag and grabbed a firearm, at which point it discharged," TSA said.

The passenger then fled through the airport exit with the firearm. The whereabouts of the passenger, now the subject of an arrest warrant, were unclear as of Saturday night.

"We are actively pursuing this individual," Atlanta Police Maj. Reginald Moorman said in an evening press conference.

Three people sustained non-life-threatening injuries amid the frenetic scene, according to the TSA, but the agency told The Associated Press that no one had been shot.

Accounts from inside the airport paint a picture of panic as passengers took shelter throughout the terminals while some scrambled to evacuate. Some travelers claimed to hear screaming and others claimed to have heard gunshots.

The scare comes as millions of Americans prepare to travel for Thanksgiving, traditionally the busiest travel period of the year, according to the TSA.

Firearms can be legally transported on commercial flights, but passengers must declare the weapon to TSA and stow it in their checked baggage unloaded and in a locked case. That said, some passengers either forget the rules or attempt to board their flight with their weapons on them.

TSA officers caught a man attempting to carry this .40 caliber handgun in his duffel bag at Bradley International Airport in Connecticut Friday. This was the 10th passenger arrested for carrying a loaded firearm through airport security this week.
/ Transportation Security Administration
TSA officers caught a man attempting to carry this .40 caliber handgun in his duffel bag at Bradley International Airport in Connecticut Friday. This was the 10th passenger arrested for carrying a loaded firearm through airport security this week.

In the last week, 10 travelers were arrested for carrying loaded firearms at TSA checkpoints in Connecticut, Virginia and Pennsylvania. A first time offender can expect a $4,100 fine, but that can climb as high as $13,669 depending on "aggravating circumstances," according to TSA regulations.

About 20 million people are expected to fly from Nov. 19-28, as vaccination numbers against COVID-19 climb across the country. The TSA is expecting pre-pandemic travel numbers this holiday season and is advising passengers to be prepared.

"We anticipate that travel may be very close to pre-pandemic levels this holiday, and we are staffed and prepared for the holiday travelers. We have deployed technologies that enhance detection capabilities and reduce physical contact, and it's equally important that passengers are prepared with travel tips for the most efficient checkpoint experience," TSA Administrator David Pekoske said in a press release. "With overall vaccination rates improving nationwide and greater confidence in healthy travel, there will be more people traveling so plan ahead, remain vigilant and practice kindness."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.