Police in central Florida evacuated a small-town mall on Sunday night after what they called two “pipe bombs” blew up outside the J.C. Penney.
But the FBI later disputed police reports and said the “bombs” had been nothing more than marine flares, which nevertheless filled a hallway at the Eagle Ridge Mall with smoke and alarmed many in the town of Lake Wales, about 30 miles southwest of Orlando.
“There is no indication of any explosion at the mall,” an FBI spokeswoman wrote to The Washington Post on Monday, even as the agency searched for the person who left the flares.
Their ignition rattled much of the community when they went off about half an hour before the mall closed Sunday. WFLA reported that the flares were inside PVC pipes and wrapped in tape. Police initially described them as bombs and have not responded to requests for updates since.
“This is a family-oriented mall. . . . People here shopping, just enjoying a Sunday afternoon with their family, and literally, boom,” deputy police chief Troy Schulze told reporters a few hours after the incident, as officers formed a perimeter around the store behind him.
Inside the mall, a bomb squad made its way from the J.C. Penney to the movie theater, where another suspicious package had been reported.
The incident was reported just before 5:30 p.m., Schulze said. Firefighters arrived to find the service corridor wall damaged and ceiling tiles knocked loose. No people had been nearby. Police found a backpack in the hallway, which they suspected contained more devices.
“At that time, they didn’t know if they’d detonated or not, or were live or not,” Schulze said.
Police pulled up minutes after the firetrucks.
“After realizing it was in fact a pipe bomb that had gone off,” Schulze said, officers evacuated frightened workers and dozens of shoppers. He said his own son had been working in the mall at the time.
Interviewing witnesses, police learned that a white, middle-aged, heavyset man in a gray shirt and gray hat was spotted running from the mall around the time the device went off. Investigators in two counties and federal officials were soon put on the case.
But in a statement Monday, Eagle Ridge Mall officials said that “initial reports of pipe bombs, IEDs, explosions or detonations of any kind . . . were incorrect, as were reports that any dangerous materials were found.”
LeShanda DuParl, a spokeswoman for the FBI’s field office in Tampa, said much the same after an initial investigation.
“It appears two items, believed to be marine flares, were ignited in a mall hallway, creating a large amount of smoke, and a backpack was located at the scene,” she wrote. “Bomb technicians examined the contents of the backpack and determined it did not contain any incendiary or explosive devices.”
A suspect was still being sought, she said, but the FBI has no reason to think the incident was an act of terrorism.
Witnesses had also reported a suspicious package outside the mall’s movie theater Sunday, but WTSP later reported that this turned out to be an old box of no consequence.
This post has been updated.