“There was something that happened inside that mall today that caused people to get concerned — a lot of people at one time,” he said, calling the day’s alarm an indication of “the unfortunate state that we’re in.”
Local and federal authorities are trying to pin down the details of what police are now calling a “suspicious incident.” No shell casings or signs of a weapon have been found, police said.
With few details about the incident available Sunday afternoon, people took to social media to share what they had seen and heard. Shaky videos captured shoppers rushing to get outside while others sheltered in stores, urged by officials to wait for help while SWAT teams searched the area.
The chaotic scene quickly drew comparisons to the Aug. 3 shooting at a shopping area in El Paso that left 22 dead. That massacre and so many others have put shoppers on high alert as loud noises and armed confrontations cause panic and as fears rise that crowded public places present “soft targets” for acts of violence.
In Boca Raton, police tweeted at 3:30 p.m. Sunday that authorities were on the scene. By 4:15 p.m., they said there was “no active shooter at this time,” although authorities continued to search the mall.
Some said they or people they knew heard gunshots. Others recalled what sounded “like pops, not automatic gunfire,” per a journalist’s tweet. Employees caught in the mall’s lockdown texted their loved ones, a local reporter said, while crowds filled the parking lot outside the upscale complex billed online as “one of south Florida’s top luxury shopping destinations.”
Many said they simply saw people running and joined them.
One student at Boca Raton High School, who declined to give her name, told the Palm Beach Post that she reacted based on her school’s regular instructions for responding to a “code red."
“We have this training. … I just ran,” she said as her family remained stuck indoors.
Ralph Saintilien, a sales associate at the mall’s Forever 21 store, told the newspaper that he stayed calm as he left the building, wary of increasing the risk of someone getting hurt. Police said some people suffered minor injuries while fleeing.
The man with the head injury was taken to Delray Medical Center, police said.
Officials said in the evening that most people had been able to leave the mall — and urged patience as some remained trapped.
“We have been stuck inside a store since 3:15 today,” one Twitter user wrote at about 6 p.m. “What is the time frame to let us out!?!”
The mall’s swift lockdown underscored an atmosphere in which even the hint of gunfire can spark large evacuations and fears of another mass shooting.
Loud noises ranging from a malfunctioning water heater to popping balloons have sparked panics in recent years. In August, days after mass shootings in Texas and Ohio, a backfiring motorcycle triggered a stampede in Times Square. So did the sounds of a falling sign in Utah.
Other evacuations involve weapons brandished but not fired: In August, a Walmart in Missouri evacuated after a man showed up armed with a military-style rifle in what he called a “social experiment” meant to test his Second Amendment rights. He was charged with making a terrorist threat. That same month, fearful customers ran out of another Walmart in Louisiana after men drew weapons during an argument, police said.
Whatever the cause or ultimate damage, the terror of an active-shooter alert can traumatize people and take a toll on police resources, experts say. Police told The Washington Post earlier this year that they respond to each alarm ready for the next massacre.
“If people are reporting a critical incident or being descriptive in terms of someone shooting, [saying] there’s an active shooter — especially since we’ve had something significant occur here in the past — we’re responding as if it’s real and preparing to deal with that particular threat,” said David L. Maggard Jr., chief of police at the Los Angeles and Van Nuys airports.