“You don’t know what to think,” said Tarah Lancaster-Williams, who had gone to the mall with a girlfriend seeking a day of relaxation, shopping and dining. “You hear someone scream ‘Shooter!’ and you bolt.”
In the end, police say, three people were shot to death in quick succession at the Zumiez store, a shop on the mall’s upper level that sells clothing and gear for surfers, skateboarders and snowboarders. Among the dead were two store employees — Brianna Benlolo, 21, of College Park and Tyler Johnson, 25, of Ellicott City — and a man authorities characterized as the shooter. Police said he was dead when they found him. Police did not immediately detail a motive, and it was unclear whether the victims were targeted or shot at random.
Whatever the reason, the echoing shots provoked terror for those in the mall, igniting fears of yet another mass shooting in a public place that, until now, they considered safe.
“I just thank God we’re alive,” said Tanya Broughton, who was at the mall with Lancaster-Williams.
The gunfire erupted about 11:15 a.m., and, with mass shootings now in the public consciousness, people seemed to know what to do. People ducked inside stores. Employees at several businesses said they immediately locked down to protect their customers. Police arrived within two minutes, SWAT officers streaming into the parking lot in armored vehicles and officers entering the mall with assault weapons, clearing each store one at a time. Helicopters buzzed overhead.
At the Lucaya clothing store, two doors down from Zumiez, manager Ellen Kim said she heard a loud noise and then two women rushed into her store — one carrying a baby and saying she heard a gunshot. Kim said she didn’t believe her; the shopping center, after all, is usually “such a nice, quiet mall.”
But then the women heard more shots, Kim said, perhaps five in all. Kim said she locked the doors and rushed to the safety of the storeroom.
“We tried to be quiet,” she said.
On the mall’s ground floor, Candace Johnson, 24, of Columbia was shopping at Forever 21 when she heard a commotion, then saw 30 people “panicking and screaming and kind of running” in her direction. Johnson said she immediately went to the back of the store and got down. They waited together for two hours, Johnson said, receiving periodic phone calls from mall security telling them to stay where they were.
“It’s just kind of nerve-racking,” Johnson said. “As time went on, [we were] just really anxious to figure out what was going on.”
National and local news outlets soon flocked to Columbia, a community in Howard County that is home to about 100,000 people and nestled about halfway between Baltimore and the District.
Political leaders — including Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), County Executive Ken Ulman (D) and Council member Mary Kay Sigaty (D-West Columbia) — spoke of sending their thoughts and prayers to the victims. The Baltimore Orioles and Ravens did the same on their Twitter feeds.
Sigaty, whose district includes the mall, said shopping there is part of her routine, and the incident left her rattled.
“This is the kind of thing that really shatters your peace and your sense of security,” she said.
As police swarmed the mall, the hundreds who did not take shelter inside stores soon began pouring out of the exits, witnesses said. Stacy Allwein said that as she pulled into the mall’s parking garage — hoping to go inside to shop for a dress — a woman came tapping at her window and told her of the shooting.
The woman, Allwein said, wanted a ride out.
“You never know why these crazy things happen,” Allwein said. “We were just going to go shopping.”
Lori Aratani, Lynh Bui, Jenna Johnson and Victoria St. Martin contributed to this report.