A security officer fell to his death Saturday morning at Orlando International Airport, causing confusion, panic and lengthy travel delays as some airport operations were briefly halted, officials said.
The Transportation Security Administration confirmed that an officer “fell from a hotel balcony” inside the airport about 9:30 a.m. Saturday and died. Though representatives for the agency first said it had been an on-duty officer, they later clarified that his shift had just ended.
“The officer had just clocked out, he was off duty,” TSA spokeswoman Jenny Burke said in an email. “Our thoughts and prayers go out to the officer’s family, friends and everyone in our TSA family."
Orlando police said the person had jumped from the Hyatt Regency Hotel, which is part of the airport’s main terminal. The hotel’s inward-facing rooms have balconies that look out onto a sprawling atrium area of the airport.
It was unclear whether anyone else was injured because of the officer’s fall or in the ensuing confusion, Orlando police spokesman Eduardo J. Bernal said. An investigation is ongoing, he said.
Travelers described the pandemonium after the fall, with many reporting hearing a loud noise they mistook for a gunshot.
Leah McCarthy, who had traveled to the Hyatt for her daughter’s dance competition, was in her room on the hotel’s eighth floor when she heard a commotion downstairs.
“Initially I thought some famous person had just walked through the airport,” McCarthy told The Washington Post. “That’s where my mind first went — and then I heard this ‘bang’ like a shotgun and then like terror screams.”
She ran to the window and saw people “running everywhere."
“TSA was just motioning for people to just run through the checkpoint,” McCarthy said.
TSA officials later said that, as a result of the confusion, “several passengers scattered into the sterile area unscreened.”
Out of an abundance of caution, all passengers past security were brought back out to the main terminal atrium to be rescreened, Orlando airport spokeswoman Carolyn Fennell told The Post. Some airport tram services were briefly shut down as well, she said.
A ground stop also was ordered, delaying flights that were scheduled to land, deplane or take off around that time. The incident affected the east checkpoint, which serves gates 70 to 129 — flights for Delta, Southwest, Alaska and Air Canada, Fennell said.
She added that it could be hours before operations returned to normal on what would have already been a busy travel day. As of 2:45 p.m., Southwest Airlines had canceled 49 inbound flights to and 45 outbound flights from Orlando.
On social media, travelers posted images of security lines so long that they snaked and filled the entire atrium, spilling into corridors of shops and restaurants. Others said they were stuck on flights that had landed.
McCarthy, the Hyatt guest who was there for her daughter’s dance competition, said she rushed to the hotel’s fourth-floor ballrooms to find her child, but it was about 15 minutes before they could be reunited in the chaos.
Her daughter, 12, later told McCarthy that another parent had run into the room, screaming about a potential active shooter, and that they had all taken cover, huddling together and staying quiet.
“It’s just sad because the girls are so desensitized,” McCarthy said. “They have active shooter drills at school. They knew what to do.”
Over the course of the recent partial government shutdown, most TSA officers had to work without pay. Three weeks into the shutdown, a record number of TSA officers called out of work, some citing financial reasons, subsequently disrupting security checkpoints at several major airports.