After the gunfire, shoppers and workers confront emotional toll

Restless nights, troubled dreams, haunting memories in wake of the shootings

February 01, 2014|By Jean Marbella, The Baltimore Sun

Shafon Robinson found comfort in how well her children seemed to be coping this past week. They had been elsewhere in The Mall in Columbia when the shooter killed two store employees and — in a moment that still haunts her — turned and fired at her.

He missed, and in the ensuing days, Robinson felt the fallout for her family would be limited — until she received a call from the school about her youngest.

"She won't stop screaming," Robinson said she was told.

Anxious outbursts, restless nights and troubled dreams have followed home some of the shoppers and workers who were at the mall last Saturday. Their turmoil may pale in comparison to the grief of those who lost loved ones that day, but counselors say such a terrifying event in what is essentially Columbia's town square could produce emotional collateral damage.

"It was a tough day for the whole community," said Andrea Ingram, director of Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center in Columbia. The group was among several who offered immediate support, calling in extra counselors as their office phones rang incessantly in the wake of the shootings.

"Everyone's just heartbroken over the young people who died," she said. "And people are fearful as well."

That such a seemingly safe and familiar place could be so violently breached makes last Saturday's tragedy even more devastating, psychologists say. Many knew the victims, Brianna Benlolo and Tyler Johnson, the co-workers at Zumiez, if only by face or chance encounter. And the shooter, Darion Marcus Aguilar, who turned his gun on himself, was someone known to hang out at the mall.

Shoppers and employees at the mall Saturday observed a moment of silence at the exact time the shootings began one week ago. That followed a candlelight vigil attended by hundreds earlier in the week. Among them was Kerri Nussbaum, a hairstylist who works at a salon across from Zumiez. Not only was she physically close to the shootings, but Nussbaum also knew "Bri" and had previously cut her hair.

"It was a traumatic event," said Nussbaum, who works at Cavallaro & Co. "The whole process has been hard."

And the process continues, she might have added, except she just couldn't say more. "It's too soon," she said.

Panic at the Playground

"I normally cry so easily, but I've just been frozen," said Pinar Moon, who was with her two children in the play area when the gunfire erupted. "I can't get emotional."

Her family had just eaten breakfast at Panera Bread, and her husband, Melborne, went to have a cellphone repaired at a kiosk in the food court area. She took their 5-year-old son and 18-month-old daughter to play.

When the gunfire erupted, Pinar Moon said she and the other parents jumped into the play area, some stepping over other children in a panicked effort to reach their own. Luckily, she said, her husband made his way back and they followed the employees from the nearby H&M clothing store who beckoned them into the store.

"They were amazing," she said, echoing a common sentiment from Saturday. The workers locked down the store and took the two dozen or so parents and kids into an employees' area in back, Moon said.

There was an exit to the parking lot from there, but workers suggested everyone shelter in place until police let them know it was safe to leave, she said.

They found paper plates and markers to entertain the kids. At one point, she remembers "jumping out" of her skin at the sound of screaming — which someone later told her was a person having panic attack in a nearby restroom.

Moon said her daughter was largely oblivious to what was going on but her son might have picked up the undercurrent of anxiety.

"He doesn't like it when anyone is upset, so he started making up songs," she said. "He was singing, 'We'll all be OK. Don't worry, everything will be fine.' He was making 'love cards' for people, drawing hearts. It was like a reversal, he was trying to assure us."

She remembered how in 2012 she and her husband had decided not to tell their son about the children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School. But he heard about it from other kids and got confused, thinking the schoolchildren had done something wrong.

"I'm a good boy," he had told her, "because I don't want to get killed."

So in the H&M backroom, they told him: "There is a bad person in the mall with a gun, but we are safe." It bothers her, Moon said, that "in his little life he's already seen these things happen."

After about an hour and a half, she estimated, a SWAT team arrived. Police were still treating the scene as an "active shooter" situation, so officers ordered everyone to put their hands up as they were ushered out of the mall.

Since then, Moon said, she's had a couple of nightmares that she attributes to how helpless she felt.

"As a parent, you get scared that you can't protect your children," she said. "I had a nightmare that my girl was riding a bike and she fell into an ocean-like thing and I couldn't get to her."

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