'The Whole World Started Running Inside'

October 15, 2002

Forty-five minutes before closing. A suburban shopping center parking lot, still busy, still flooded with light. Still ordinary.

Until a single crack in the night.

In that single moment, the Seven Corners shopping center became an extraordinary crime scene, swarming with police and federal agents and bloodhounds, with the massive directed beams of helicopters.

All searching for the gunman.

The officers massed in front of the Home Depot, moved past Frugal Fannies and G Street Fabric, explored the lot's outer corners, their presence and lights transforming mundane asphalt and nondescript store fronts. People cowered, peering through windows at the chaotic scene.

Until 9:15, it had been a very routine Monday evening in Falls Church.

Manuel Solis and his wife had been heading through the parking garage toward the Home Depot entrance. He heard the shot.

"The whole world started running inside the store," the Falls Church construction worker said. He turned and saw her: the crumpled figure of a woman. She was about 100 feet away.

Someone ran into the store, screaming for help. People in line at the checkout counters started backing away from the doors, toward the rear of the store, slowly, uncertainly.

"People were trying to get out of harm's way," said one customer. "But you didn't know what harm's way was."

In the hardware aisle, considering which size screws to buy for a filing cabinet, Glen Gumon heard employees yell.

"Shut the door! Shut the door!" a worker shouted. "Someone has been shot," shouted another.

Moments passed. Over the loudspeaker, an announcement blared that customers should proceed to checkout.

Several doors down, at the Barnes & Noble bookstore, graduate student Minh Tran, studying near the magazine rack, heard nothing. Then his cell phone rang. His sister, panicked, told him there had been a shooting. "I said, 'Where?' and she said it was at the Home Depot." He gathered his books and fled.

And next door, at Starbucks: Again, no one heard anything. The music, the conversation blocked it. Until someone burst into the store, breathless. "There's been a shooting at the Home Depot . . . " 

Everyone started packing up. Bags, purses. Employees locked the doors. There was hushed fear. Twenty-five-year-old Nkeng Ajua put it in words. "It's just getting closer and closer," he said, his voice quavering.

He reached his silver Toyota and tried to pull out of the parking lot but he was trapped in a clog of cars behind police barriers. "I hope this guy makes a mistake," Ajua said. "I hope they catch him tonight. He's shooting people's mothers."

Police encircled the Home Depot and its parking garage with yellow crime-scene tape. Traffic on Routes 50 and 7, the two thoroughfares bordering the scene, gridlocked as police searched, vehicle by vehicle.

Cathy Breen had just pulled into the lot when three police cars screamed in behind her. Lights, sirens. Just like Hollywood.

She didn't realize at first. It was 9:45. Must have been an accident, she thought.

She ran into the bookstore with one of her 13-year-old twins to buy a book. Andrew, the other twin, stayed in the car. He realized, almost immediately. He hunkered down, frightened, waiting for his mother and brother to return.

"I was thinking there must have been a sniper attack," he said. "I thought he could still be around and kill again."

The 10 minutes that he was alone lasted, and lasted, and lasted.

Finally, mom was back behind the wheel. A clerk in the store had told her. Breen and her boys now waited it out, counting police cars -- at least 50. And helicopters -- now two.

"It just seems so unreal," she said. "It hasn't hit me. I know tomorrow it's going to feel scary going to the store in the morning."

She wondered how to answer her children. "My son asks me, 'Is this what it feels like during a terrorist attack?' " Breen said.

Their company in the lot: 

The literary crowd from the bookstore. The coffee crowd from Starbucks. All sitting in the lot, in their cars, engines off, radios on, but talking to each other, banding together as strangers brought together by sudden catastrophe are wont to.

Also in the lot: 

A woman who said the shot had come from a vehicle parked near an exit to the garage. The victim had left the store with her husband, and was waiting as her husband loaded packages.

Then the shot, she said.

The woman's husband jumped over and covered his wife after she fell.

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