Bus passengers frantically texted loved ones as gunman hijacked Atlanta commuter bus

A hijacked commuter bus sits on an Atlanta road where it was stopped after a lengthy police chase on Tuesday.

A hijacked commuter bus sits on an Atlanta road where it was stopped after a lengthy police chase on Tuesday. (Ben Gray, Associated Press)


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ATLANTA — Atlanta police had barely finished briefing the community about a shooting inside a downtown food court Tuesday afternoon when calls began to come in about a bus hijacking.

A gunman had hijacked a commuter bus with 17 people inside and shot one of them with the passenger's own gun, authorities said, prompting others to frantically text loved ones and call 911 for help.

But as police arrived on the scene and tried to confront the gunman, identified as 39-year-old felon Joseph Grier, the suspect held the bus driver at gunpoint and forced him to speed away, according to Atlanta Police Chief Darin Schierbaum.

The ensuing rush-hour police chase zig-zagged across highway lanes and suburban streets as the bus led authorities across at least two counties, at times careening into other cars and crossing into opposing traffic.

Inside, a passenger surreptitiously stayed on the line with 911, allowing authorities to hear the commotion, Schierbaum said. Mayor Andre Dickens said the chaos sounded like a movie scene as the suspect had "a gun to the head of a bus driver saying, 'Don't stop this bus or else worse will happen.'"

When the bus finally ground to a halt, passengers streamed out and Grier was arrested without incident, police said.

A passenger found shot aboard the bus was taken to a hospital, where the person later died, officials said.

The suspect has 19 prior felony convictions, police said, though no further details were provided.

How the harrowing incident unfolded

Passenger Paulette Gilbert called her husband from inside the bus as the chase began to unfold.

Gilbert seemed stunned and frightened as she described a man who had boarded the bus and began acting strangely, said her husband, Johnny Gilbert. She said the man got into a confrontation with another passenger and shot them, possibly in the leg.

"She said the guy got on the bus and seemed kinda crazy," Gilbert said, recounting his wife's story. "He was being disruptive or getting on people's nerves," he added.

Grier was "engaging with passengers" when he got into a fight with one of them, a male, who pulled a gun, according to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

"Grier took the gun from the passenger and began threatening passengers with it," the bureau said, citing preliminary information from its investigation. "Grier then shot the passenger and ordered the bus driver to flee the scene while threatening passengers with the gun."

At around 4:30 p.m., police received the first 911 call from a passenger reporting that a gunman was holding the bus hostage and that there may have been shots fired, Schierbaum said. Then the line went silent.

A hijacked commuter bus sits in the road where it was stopped after a lengthy police chase on Tuesday.
A hijacked commuter bus sits in the road where it was stopped after a lengthy police chase on Tuesday. (Photo: Ben Gray, Associated Press)

The husband had urged his wife to get off the phone in case the shooter thought she was calling 911, fearful he may shoot her next. "I said put the phone down, put it away. Just sit still."

Soon after, another call came in from the family of a passenger who had texted them that the bus had been hijacked.

An officer arrived at the scene within about a minute of the first 911 call and tried to confront the suspect, who then "forced the bus driver to drive off," Schierbaum said.

A third 911 call — this time from another passenger — stayed on the line throughout the entire chase, allowing dispatchers to feed information to several law enforcement agencies involved in the pursuit, the chief said.

The bus led a fleet of law enforcement vehicles along Atlanta's Interstate 85 as rush-hour commuters sped by. It crossed through several suburban areas before coming to a halt in the city of Stone Mountain.

The large bus struck several vehicles during the pursuit, police said, though it is unclear whether any drivers were hurt.

Officers were able to disable the vehicle using several tactics, including positioning an armored vehicle at one of its sides, preventing it from maneuvering in that direction, police said. The Georgia bureau said law enforcement flattened tires on the bus during the chase, but it continued to move.

Ultimately, a Georgia state trooper fired his rifle into the bus' engine compartment, the bureau said, causing the bus to halt.

Passengers then began to unload themselves and Grier was arrested without incident, police said. A joint investigation into the hijacking will be conducted by the Atlanta Police Department and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, which will also investigate the police's use of force.

"So, this day is not indicative of all the days in the city of Atlanta, but this is a day we'll never forget," the mayor said.

Contributing: Steve Almasy contributed to this report.

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