LISTEN: 911 calls reflect chaos during Atlanta airport gun discharge incident

A gun went off Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021, in Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, panicking travelers and delaying flights. On Sunday, travelers were reminded of the safety precautions with “No Weapons Beyond This Point” signage. The airport was filled with long lines snaking their way to the security checkpoints.

Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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A gun went off Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021, in Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, panicking travelers and delaying flights. On Sunday, travelers were reminded of the safety precautions with “No Weapons Beyond This Point” signage. The airport was filled with long lines snaking their way to the security checkpoints.

Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Recordings of 911 calls after a passenger’s gun went off at the main security checkpoint at Hartsfield-Jackson International last month convey the chaos and fear of people in the terminal who ran, hid and were initially told there was an active shooter in the airport.

Airport officials later that afternoon said the incident was not an active shooter, but an accidental gun discharge. The firearm went off when a passenger whose bag was being searched at the main security checkpoint lunged into the bag, grabbed a gun from it and fled, authorities said.

But at first, there was confusion about whether what people heard was an explosion at the checkpoint or shots fired, prompting a stampede of people fleeing the area.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution requested copies of the 911 calls that were made in connection with the chaos that began around 1:30 p.m. Nov. 20 at the airport. Immediately after the incident, dozens of people called 911 to report what they were witnessing — and to try to find out what was happening. Some were scared, distressed or crying.

One airport volunteer who was stationed at the meet-and-greet area called and said she saw people running through the terminal.

“Everybody is coming this way toward me talking about gunfire,“ she said. “I see a police officer. He has a gun out.”

“I guess I’m told to get down, I don’t know!” she shouts. “Oh my god.”

Many who called in early on during the lockdown were told by a 911 operator that there was a possible active shooter, and to take cover and stay quiet. People were told they could not leave the airport until the situation was cleared, and transportation to the airport was shut down.

“We have an active shooter inside the airport, so we need everybody to stay clear and stay safe and stay down,” one operator told a caller.

More than a dozen calls were for medical assistance for people who were trampled, who fell or were injured while running from the scene or rushing down escalators, or felt ill after the incident.

The gunfire occurred at the security checkpoint in the main terminal, which exits onto Concourse T, and an operator told callers on Concourse T to shelter in place and at one point told people in the terminal to stay clear of the concourse.

One woman who heard there was an active shooter called and said she was at the airport with her baby, her husband and her mother. “I’m just hearing screaming and I don’t know what to do. I’m shaking,” she said. “Is the shooter by me?” The operator told her she didn’t have any information and advised her to stay out of sight and that officers were securing the area.

After about an hour-and-a-half of confusion while passengers sheltered in place, airport officials gave the all clear and passengers began boarding flights again — though the suspect was still at large at the time.

At one point, a 911 operator began calling emergency rooms around metro Atlanta asking if a patient had come in with a gunshot wound to the leg, based on the belief that the suspect may have been hit.

Even after the all-clear was given, some confusion continued as people attempted to get into or out of the airport amid gridlock from the backup of traffic during the lockdown.

Airport officials later said the suspect left the airport, and days afterward they found the gun in a garbage can. The suspect, Kenny Wells Jr., 42, turned himself in more than a week after the incident.

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