Columbia mall shooting witnesses recall terror, uncertainty

'This was the single scariest moment of my life'

January 25, 2014|By Justin Fenton, The Baltimore Sun

David Roberts was finishing up a customer's haircut Saturday at the Cavallaro & Co. salon on the second floor of The Mall in Columbia when he heard the first shot. He looked at another employee, wondering whether they should be concerned.

"When we heard the second, that's when we were like, 'We need to go,'" said the 46-year-old stylist.

Directly across from the salon, three people had been shot at Zumiez, a skate apparel and gear store. Roberts initially led employees and customers out the back of the salon. When he came back for a fellow worker who was hiding under a desk, he saw three bodies on the ground.

"It was very obvious that they were deceased," Roberts said, adding that one body was inside Zumiez and two were lying out front.

The late-morning shootings at the suburban mall sent shoppers and workers scurrying for safety. Some rushed from the mall; others hid in shops or storerooms — wondering what was happening and when they could leave safely.

Jennifer Duchman Griffin, who works part-time at Sephora on the mall's upper level, said the store's staff sprang into action as soon as they got word of the shooting.

"We got an alert saying the mall was on lockdown," said Griffin, a local advertising manager at The Baltimore Sun. Sephora had an emergency plan in place: "We shut the doors and locked them."

She and about 14 others went to the skin care section at the back of the store for shelter. "Everybody stayed quiet. We were all reading our phones, texting. ... We stayed hidden."

When police came to escort her and the others out of the store, "it was hands in the air, stay to the left and walk out," she said.

"All I could think of is it's just like Columbine. ... This was the single scariest moment of my life."

Meredith Curtis-Goode was with her mother and young daughter, who was in a children's play area, when suddenly people started moving en masse toward the JCPenney store. Then she heard several shots.

Curtis-Goode grabbed her daughter, pinning her to her side, and moved quickly inside the H&M store. She then locked herself inside a bathroom with another woman and child.

"My daughter is 4, and the other boy was 3. We just wanted to make it not scary," said Curtis-Goode, communications director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.

People rushed from the mall so quickly that many left their belongings behind and were unable to get home.

Wanda Davila, 54, of Abingdon, an area manager for a cleaning company that works at the mall, was meeting with co-workers in the food court when she heard shots upstairs. She ducked into the back of the Chick-fil-A restaurant, leaving her coat and car keys behind. As the day wore on, she wondered how she would get them back.

Similarly, Laura McKindles, who works at a kiosk at the mall, fled into a perfume store after hearing a "rapid succession of gunshots," leaving behind her "house keys, wallet, everything." Outside, she boarded a school bus that took her and others to Howard County Community College.

Nesreen El Sayad, who owns Sweet Treat, said she heard the shots and ran to a storage closet to hide and wait for her husband to come get her. "I can't stay here. It is horrible. I just ran," said a visibly upset El Sayad. "I'm scared."

Evan Ye, 10, was with his parents, the owners of Wasabi Sushi, and they huddled in the closet wtih her. He said heard a few shots, and everyone ducked and started running. "I wasn't sure if they were kidding," he said — until more shots rang out. "And that's when my dad knew something was wrong."

Mohammed Zaidi, an 18-year-old employee at JC Penney, said customers ducked for cover after hearing gunshots. The store management then gathered people in the juniors department.

"Some people were crying and really scared," Zaidi said. "I was really surprised, especially here. You don't really see that here."

Calls and texts

Robin Stapleton of Columbia had just dropped her daughter, Lauryn, off at work when a frantic call came from her as she was barricaded in the mall.

"When you first hear it, it's like you've lost your child," Robin Stapleton said. "She was talking to me, but you're fearful.

"You don't know what's going on and she didn't know where the shooter was. … I thought I lost her because I couldn't be there for her."

Lauryn Stapleton, 18, said it sounded as though someone had dropped a brick from the upper level down to the food court.

"And then I heard [someone yell] 'Shots fired.' … It sounded like a popping noise, like something hitting metal really hard. It sounded like a brick sound. It just kept going and going and going," said the teen, who works at Cartoon Cuts, a children's barber shop, but whose boss had sent her to McDonald's for food.

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