by John Bacon and Greg Toppo
COLUMBIA, Md. - A gunman opened fire in a crowded suburban shopping mall Saturday, leaving three people dead and setting off panic as hundreds of fear-stricken shoppers and mall employees raced for cover.
The suspect, armed with a shotgun, was among the victims at The Mall in Columbia, Howard County Police Chief Bill McMahon said. Police said a fourth victim was being treated for a gunshot wound to the foot. Four other people either suffered from medical conditions or suffered minor injuries such as twisted ankles, he said.
Brianna Benlolo, 21, of College Park, Md., and Tyler Johnson, 25, of Ellicott City, Md., were killed, police said. The identity of the gunman had not been released.
McMahon said the bodies were found in Zumiez, an apparel store catering to skaters, surfers and snowboarders, on the mall's upper level. Benlolo and Johnson were employees of the store, he said. The shooter's body was found still laden with ammunition. AP reported late Friday that police had located and disabled "crude attempts at explosive devices" in the gunman's belongings.
McMahon said he was "confident" there had been just one shooter. He said it wasn't clear whether the shooting was random or whether the shooter and victims knew each other.
McMahon said several calls came in to the 911 dispatcher around 11:15 a.m. about shots fired at the mall. Officers responded within two minutes, he said.
By late afternoon the mall had been cleared. The mall will remain closed at least until Sunday, police said.
Howard County Executive Ken Ulman said it has been a "tremendously trying" few hours for the community.
"We want to send our thoughts and prayers to the family members and the loved ones of the victims," Ulman said.
Witnesses said they heard gunshots, setting off a scramble as shoppers fled the mall or ran to hide.
Lauryn Stapleton, 18, who works at the Cartoon Cuts hair salon for children on the mall's second floor, said she witnessed the shooting near an escalator. She was getting food for her boss at the McDonald's, downstairs in the mall's food court, when she heard a loud sound from the level above.
"It sounded like somebody had dropped a brick off the top ledge and I heard someone say, 'Shots fired.' So I grabbed a kid and I looked - three people fell to the ground. I grabbed the kid and ran, had the mother follow me," Stapleton said.
"It was completely crazy - everybody started running and screaming" and Stapleton "almost passed out" from sheer hysteria, she said.
Standing in front of her mother's minivan, draped in a black hooded sweatshirt, she talked to reporters for several minutes, one of whom asked her what was going through her mind in the first moments after the shooting. Her answer? "Holy (expletive), I'm gonna die."
Tarah Lancaster-Williams and Tonya Broughton were at a mall spa for a "ladies' day out" when they saw people running.
"There was panic," Broughton said, a bit of the cream from her facial still flecked on her face. "I mean, if you can imagine just hearing those words, 'There's a shooter,' no one really thinks twice when they hear those words. You really start to flee. So we fled to the nearest store - and even in there you didn't know if someone was coming in there."
Broughton said the two, who had been sitting next to each other in the salon, moments later lost track of each other.
"As much as you think you've seen this on the news forever and you think, 'Here's what I'm going to do, I'm going to go this way,' that all goes out the window," Broughton said.
They both ended up in the mall's Victoria's Secret store, where Broughton said managers locked store gates. "They were extremely comforting and kept us updated. They were calm, and we just hugged each other and tried to talk to each other."
Hours later, Lancaster-Williams, clutching her cellphone and close to tears, stood in the cold parking lot wrapped in a white police blanket.
"We ran so fast - her coat is still in there, my purse, her purse is still in the mall, we don't know when we're going to get our belongings," she said. "But we're just thanking God that we're alive."
Ed Main was shopping at the Justice store with son Noah, 15, daughter Tori, 12, and niece Ana Collins, 18, when they heard two loud pops. He said they were hustled by an employee into a storeroom in the back of the store. Main, from nearby Westminster, said the employee "shut the door and barricaded it from the inside."
It was more than an hour before they were able to exit the mall.
The Mall tweeted this after the shooting: "Our hearts & prayers are with everyone in the Columbia community. The Mall in Columbia will remain closed for the remainder of the day."
Columbia, with a population of about 100,000 people, was built in the 1960s as a planned community of 10 "villages." Columbia is about 18 miles from Baltimore and 24 miles from Washington, D.C.