COLUMBIA, MD - The mall in suburban Baltimore was humming with weekend shoppers when, suddenly, shotgun blasts rang out on the upper level.
Panicked patrons in the food court below, others browsing in jewelry stores or undergoing facials scrambled for cover. Some ducked into nearby stores. Others hid in inventory rooms or barricaded themselves behind locked doors until police arrived.
Within 2 minutes of the first 911 call Saturday morning, police say officers arriving at the Mall in Columbia found three people dead, including the gunman. Police say a man with a shotgun had shot a man and a woman, both in their 20s, who worked at a skateboard shop. He then killed himself.
Five others were injured in the mid-morning shooting and its aftermath. All had been released from hospitals by Saturday evening.
"This was a very scary incident," Howard County Executive Ken Ulman said. "There were a lot of people very close to where this happened."
Police Chief Edward J. McMahon said police were still seeking a motive even as he praised mall patrons for doing the right thing by sheltering in place and not stampeding toward the exits.
A news release Saturday night said police found and disabled "two crude devices that appeared to be an attempt at making explosives using fireworks." Police were searching the mall with dogs overnight, which is standard procedure, and the mall was to remain closed Sunday.
Joan Harding of Elkridge, Md., was shopping with her husband, David, for a tiara for their granddaughter's 18th birthday. She said she heard something heavy falling, followed by gunshots and people running.
"My husband said, `Get down!' and the girl that worked in the store said, `Get in the back,"' Harding said. That is where they hid until police searched the mall and signaled it was safe to leave.
The shooting took place around 11:15 a.m. Saturday at a shop called Zumiez, which sells skateboards, clothing and accessories. The company's chief executive, Rick Brooks, said it was making counseling available for employees in the area.
McMahon said at a news conference that authorities had difficulty identifying the gunman because of concerns he was carrying explosives and were proceeding with an "abundance of caution." By late Saturday, police said they had tentatively identified the gunman but declined to release his name while they followed up on leads.
Police identified the victims as 21-year-old Brianna Benlolo of College Park, Md., and 25-year-old Tyler Johnson of Ellicott City, Md. Both worked at Zumiez.
Benlolo's grandfather, John Feins, said in a telephone interview from Florida that his granddaughter had a 2-year-old son and that the job at Zumiez was her first since she went back to work after her son's birth.
"She was all excited because she was the manager there," he said.
He said he had spoken with his daughter, Brianna's mother, earlier in the day, but didn't know who the gunman was or whether the person knew his granddaughter.
"It's senseless. It's totally, totally senseless," he said.
He described his daughter's family as a military family that had moved frequently and had been in Colorado before moving to Maryland about two years ago. He said his granddaughter was on good terms with her son's father, and they shared custody.
"I mean what can you say? You go to work and make a dollar and you got some idiot coming in and blowing people away," he said.
The mall is at the center of the town that's a suburb of both Baltimore and Washington, and it typically opens at 10 a.m. on Saturdays. It was busy with shoppers and employees when the shots rang out before noon.
McMahon said it wasn't clear whether the gunman and victims knew each other. He said officers did not fire any shots when they arrived at the scene. A police news release said it appears the gunman died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Tonya Broughton of Silver Spring, Md., was with a friend getting facials for a "girls' morning out," she said. "The only thing I heard was all the people running and screaming and saying `There's a shooter! There's a shooter!"' she said.
Wearing a gel face mask, she and her friend hid in a Victoria's Secret store, as her anxious thoughts turned to her family.
People were directed out of the mall and into a parking lot, where some boarded a bus and others walked toward their cars. Police cars blocked off various entrances to the mall as SWAT officers and law enforcement vehicles gathered in the expansive parking lot. Some people were seen crying and hugging and at least one woman was carrying a baby. McMahon said detectives were interviewing witnesses as they emerged from the mall.
Laura McKindles of Columbia works at a kiosk in the mall. She said she heard between eight and 10 gunshots,
followed by people running and screaming. She ran into the backroom of a perfume store and locked the door.
Allison Cohen, who works at the apparel store Lucky Brand Jeans, said she always felt safe at the mall.
"I truly never thought something like this would ever happen here," Cohen said. "It's really, really shocking."