COLUMBIA, Md. — In the latest burst of violence in a week of fatal shootings in public places, a man wielding a shotgun opened fire Saturday morning in a bustling suburban shopping mall in Maryland, killing two people and sending hundreds of terrified shoppers screaming and racing for cover.
The motive was unknown and authorities dismissed news reports that tied the killings to a domestic dispute. "We do not know yet what caused the shooting incident," Howard County Police Chief Bill McMahon told reporters gathered outside the shopping center, known as the Mall in Columbia.
He identified the victims as two Maryland residents, Brianna Benlolo, 21, of College Park, and Tyler Johnson, 25, of Mount Airy. Both were employees at Zumiez, a skateboard shop on the upper level of the mall.
Authorities had tentatively identified the gunman, who apparently committed suicide. McMahon said officers found ammunition and a firearm next to his body. In a bag he carried two crude explosives made from fireworks. Both were disabled.
Hours after the shooting, shoppers and employees outside the mall described a scene of confusion and terror.
"You just heard people screaming, 'There's a shooter! There's a shooter!'" said Tonya Broughton, 43, of Silver Spring.
Broughton and friend Tarah Lancaster-Williams, of Lanham, were getting mini-facials at a kiosk when they sensed a commotion. "We saw the crowd running and we ran with the crowd," Lancaster-Williams said.
She dashed into a Victoria's Secret store, where the manager closed the security gate. "I heard a sound," she said. "I didn't know if it was a shot or not. It sounded like a pop."
As shoppers and mall employees sought cover, a call went out to 911 at 11:15 a.m., unleashing a massive police response.
During the chaos Broughton and Lancaster-Williams got separated, only to discover later that they had both taken shelter in the lingerie store. Broughton said she and others first hunkered down by fitting rooms, then the manager ushered everyone into a stockroom and locked it.
"We didn't know what was going on," Broughton said, so she called her husband — and asked for information via Facebook. "Local family please see if this is on the news," she wrote.
Friends wrote that they were praying for her. But Broughton wanted information and asked for it again. Now people responded:
"The news reports an active shooter with 3 people injured. No report if the shooter has been captured. Stay safe!"
"SWAT teams are clearing the mall now. Hopefully you will be out soon."
Meanwhile, Laura McKindles was hiding at a Perfumania store. She had been standing at a booth selling time shares when she heard banging. "I thought somebody was just doing construction," she said. Then the sound registered. McKindles, who is familiar with firearms, recognized the crack of a shotgun.
At the fragrance store, she and others hid in a back room, locking themselves in behind a metal door. An hour later, police came knocking. Officers were still searching the mall and instructed the group not to use their cellphones or talk.
"Don't do anything to make noise," she said the officers told them, "because he could hear you."
Then the officers left.
About 45 minutes later, the officers returned with a SWAT team to escort them out. On the way, McKindles stopped at her kiosk and grabbed her cellphone. She didn't have time to snag her keys, coat or gloves. Like many at the mall, she emerged into the snowy parking lot shivering in 20-degree weather. When Broughton left the mall, she still had on bits of face cream from the facial.
Five people were injured: One suffered a gunshot wound to the foot; the others were injured in falls while trying to escape. All were treated at Howard County General Hospital and released, McMahon said.
The shooting capped a week of gun violence in public venues. On Monday a student was shot and wounded at Widener University near Philadelphia. The next day, at Purdue University in Indiana, Andrew Boldt, 21, a teaching assistant, was stabbed and shot to death in an engineering building classroom.
On Friday a student at South Carolina State University, 20-year-old Brandon Robinson, was gunned down outside a dormitory.
Roger Aseneta, 52, the manager of Auntie Anne's, a pretzel shop at the Maryland mall, reflected on recent violence as he stood outside, still wearing his apron. He too had heard the screams and had seen people running. "I never dreamed I would experience this," he said. "I see this on television — all the shootings everywhere."
Simon reported from Columbia, Hamedy from Los Angeles. Times staff writer Molly Hennessy-Fiske contributed to this report from Houston.