ATLANTA — Gunfire at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport on Saturday resulted from an “accidental discharge” of a firearm, officials said, but it caused holiday travelers to flee and seek cover as some believed there was a gunman inside one of the terminals.
The airport said on Twitter that there was no gunman or danger to passengers or employees. At about 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, there was an “accidental discharge” at the airport’s security screening area, the airport said.
Officials gave an “all-clear” and was resuming normal operations by around 3:30 p.m., the airport said. In the havoc, three people were hurt but their injuries were not life-threatening, the Transportation Security Administration said.
The panic occurred during one of the busiest times of the year for air travel, when millions of people are expected to fly for Thanksgiving. The T.S.A. said on Wednesday that airline travel for the Thanksgiving season this year was expected to approach prepandemic levels.
The firearm was discharged by a passenger, the administration said. At a news conference on Saturday night, the authorities identified the passenger as 42-year-old Kenny Wells. The police said he was a felon and there were warrants out for his arrest.
A T.S.A. officer working at the main checkpoint at the airport began searching a bag when X-ray machines identified a “prohibited item,” the administration said. When the officer opened the bag to examine it, Mr. Wells lunged into the bag and grabbed a firearm, at which point it discharged, officials said. He then fled, running out an airport exit.
“This was not an active shooter event, however local airport and TSA leadership made the decision to initiate a ground stop while Atlanta Police Department investigated the incident further,” the administration said in a statement.
In 2014, Georgia passed a law that allowed concealed weapons at airports in areas “outside the screening checkpoint and that are normally open to unscreened passengers or visitors to the airport.”
T.S.A. officers in Georgia have so far this year recovered more than 450 firearms at security checkpoints at the airport in Atlanta.
“This incident underscores the importance of checking personal belongings for dangerous items before leaving for the airport,” the T.S.A. said. “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.”
Passengers who bring firearms to airports could face a civil penalty.
The Federal Aviation Administration said all departing flights at the airport were grounded for 35 minutes.
Some passengers shared on social media that they had to exit their departing flights to be rescreened. Videos also showed that those who had to get off the planes had to stay on the tarmac while they waited for more information.
Milaina Latsis, who lives in Flowery Branch, Ga., which is about an hour outside Atlanta, was headed for Minneapolis where she planned to spend Thanksgiving with her mother, her two infants and their father. Before lining up at a security checkpoint, she said they headed to the restroom “and thank God we did.”
As they walked out of the restroom and toward security, she said they heard three gunshots.
“It took us a minute to register what was going on, but everyone at T.S.A. was ducking, and we had a clear shot to the exit, so we just ran,” she said. “At this point, it’s just total panic.”
For a moment, her mother stood petrified, holding Ms. Latsis’s 2½-month-old son. The father, Nathan Hancock, who was holding their 15-month-old daughter, shouted, “Let’s go! Run, run, run!”
Christopher Hessen, who had driven to the airport from Auburn, Ala., was waiting for passengers to get off the plane he was supposed to take to Raleigh, N.C., when he noticed the frenzy erupt.
Mr. Hessen dashed for the nearest emergency exit, but the door would not budge, so he bolted for the jet bridge and made his way to the tarmac with dozens of others.
Mr. Hessen, who is a flight instructor at Auburn University, said the airport seemed unprepared for the chaos. No one on the tarmac stopped the fleeing crowd from wandering. No airport official immediately addressed the developing situation.
“That’s what was concerning,” he said. “I figured the airport would get shut down immediately.”
On the tarmac, Mr. Hessen said, “There were aircraft that were going by that were within a wingspan of us — so pretty close — and nothing ever got shut down.”
After the airport announced an “all-clear,” Mr. Hessen said, the mood on the tarmac lightened, but he and others were still stuck there. “The panic was real at the start, people crying and people hiding, even after we got outside,” he said.