Laura McKindles was standing at a booth selling time shares in the Mall in Columbia on Saturday, talking to a customer and thinking about grabbing breakfast, when she heard banging.
“I thought somebody was just doing construction,” she said.
Then the sound registered. McKindles knows how to fire a gun and thought she recognized the crack of a shotgun.
She had heard 8 to 10 shots. The sound came from about 60 yards down the hall on the mall’s lower level — in the food court.
“Someone ran up to me and said, ‘He’s got a gun!’ and everyone took off running,” McKindles told the Los Angeles Times.
The hall was more than half full of people, drawn to the mall after a week of bleak winter weather. Now they were panicked, fleeing.
McKindles, a middle-aged honey blond with short hair and boxy brown glasses, had just started working at the mall two months earlier. She didn’t know many people there. She ran across the hall to the nearest store, Perfumania. A couple of employees led her to a back room, along with a girl and a woman who had lost her daughter in the commotion.
They locked themselves in behind a metal door.
An hour later, police came knocking. The employees let them in. They were still searching for a possible suspect, she said. They 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.
The mother grew more worried about her daughter. McKindles rubbed her back and whispered, “She’s going to be OK.”
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.
She emerged into the snowy parking lot shivering. Police took her and about 40 others from the mall to a firetruck to keep warm, then drove them to a movie theater connected to the mall.
McKindles gave a statement to police. She heard them announce that three people were dead, including the suspected shooter. Authorities have not yet released the names of the victims or said what kind of gun was used.
Authorities would later say four people were injured. One was a shooting victim. The other three sustained injuries during the situation.
McKindles didn’t know any of this as she waited with other mall patrons and staff at the theater. Some speculated about where the shooter fired from, and his motive. McKindles worried about those killed and injured. She knows the food court is often full of children.
McKindles waited to see if police would allow her to fetch her keys so that she could drive home. “They’re not allowing anyone back in the mall — it’s a crime scene,” she said.
As she waited, she wrestled with what she had just witnessed.
“I’d like to understand why somebody on a Saturday morning when it’s 20 degrees outside would pack a gun and shoot three people,” McKindles said, “I have four older brothers. There’s not a lot in life that scares me. This is one of those things that does.”