The Mall in Columbia would be different when it reopened, the police chief predicted.
In many ways, it was.
Shoppers dropped white flowers into the fountain basin instead of coins, turning a fun ritual into a somber memorial. Smiles from behind store counters seemed tentative, forced. There were a lot of TV cameras and almost as many Howard County police officers. There was, as some put it, an eeriness.
But there was a sameness too, a flashback to life in suburbia before the shotgun blasts.
Mall walkers zipped around in sneakers. Store credits were issued, exchanges made, purses procured. There were chicken samples in the food court. The merry-go-round played that old, familiar tune, waiting for children to hop on again.
A little more than 48 hours after police say 19-year-old Darion Aguilar gunned down two workers at a skateboarding shop and then turned the gun on himself, a mall long thought of as a place of community, not just conspicuous consumption, came slowly back to life, even as the victims’ co-workers and friends turned up to remember lives cut short.
There were almost three dozen people waiting to get into the Apple store, including Isaac Miller, 77, a longtime Columbia resident. He didn’t think twice about stopping by to troubleshoot an iPad WiFi problem. He called the shooting a “sad event,” but added that “this is happening everywhere now.” The violence, he said, hasn’t changed his view of the mall: “It’s a safe place.”
By most accounts, business was slower than usual for a Monday afternoon, perhaps owing not just to the tragedy but to the media spectacle, with satellite trucks parked next to minivans. There were plenty of politicians, too. County Executive Ken Ulman (D), a candidate for lieutenant governor, praised the community’s “true character,” then lunched at Subway in the food court. Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) stopped by, saying, “Everyone in Maryland is with the people of Columbia today.”
Away from the handshakes and TV cameras, Erika Iloabachie, a 20-year-old Towson University student, bought two purses at Aldo. She confessed that shopping in a place where two people had been killed was a little “eerie” and “scary.”
Not far away, Mustafa Gulcu, the proprietor of two kiosks — one selling Rainbow Looms and rubber bands, an obsession of the 10-year-old set; the other selling remote-control helicopters — said he wasn’t doing any business and worried that there would be fewer shoppers in the coming weeks because of the shooting.
Mall officials were given access to the building in the early morning hours on Sunday and “immediately went to work” to prepare to reopen, said Ashley Venable, senior general manager of the mall. Repairs, which mostly focused on storefront entrances that authorities entered, were completed.
Zumiez, the store where the attack took place, was boarded up with a sign saying, “In loving memory of Brianna Benlolo and Tyler Johnson, please express your messages of hope and encouragement at the Mall’s Center Court.”
Shoppers and friends of the slain workers went there to sign memorial books and gently toss white flowers into a fountain. Thirty minutes after the mall opened, there were dozens of flowers bobbing around.
Caitlin Davis, 17, of Columbia brought flowers to remember her friend “Bri.”
“Standing outside the food court, I was almost crying,” said Davis, who works at the GameStop near Zumiez. “I was almost in tears walking around. This is just unreal.”
Davis remembered Benlolo, 21 and the mother of a 2-year-old son, as “being the nicest person I’ve ever met.”
Tanissa Dorsey of Ellicott City was friends with Johnson, 25, who’d overcome drug and alcohol addiction and often spoke to youth groups about substance abuse. She cried as she remembered him.
“We just had a lot of adventures,” she said. “We wasted a lot of gas driving all over, having fun.”
Dorsey and two friends described Johnson as instantly likable, charismatic and energetic. Dorsey said simply that he was “that guy.” Although they were standing at a memorial, Dorsey and friends said it was just sinking in that Johnson was gone.
“I don’t think there’s any sense to make of it,” said Chris Yockey of Ellicott City. “It’s very surreal, but it’s getting more real.”
There was another memorial outside the mall, with a large sign that said, “Forever in our hearts.” Shortly before the mall reopened, a young woman in a purple jacket approached the sign and placed a bouquet at the site. She knelt beside the flowers, sobbing.
A stranger tried to comfort her. “I’m sorry for your loss,” the man said. “She’s in a better place.”
The mourner continued to stare at the flowers.
A card attached to them said: “Words can’t explain how I feel, Brianna, you’ve touched so many lives and it was an honor to know you! I already miss your laugh! I love you Bri Bri.”