COLUMBIA, Maryland (USA TODAY) - A gunman opened fire in a crowded suburban shopping mall Thursday, 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. At least two other people suffered minor injuries not directly related to the shootings, officials said.
McMahon said the bodies were found in Zumiez, an apparel store catering to skaters, surfers and snowboarders, on the mall's upper level. He 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. Responding officers found the bodies, including one near a gun and ammunition.
People were still being released from the mall, area by area, as the afternoon wore on. Detectives were trying to confirm the identities of the victims, but no motive had been determined, McMahon said. 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. 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 cell phone 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.
Laura McKinzles 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.
Joan Harding, of Elkridge, 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. They hid there until police gave the all-clear.
People were directed out of the mall and into a parking lot, where some boarded a bus and others walked toward their cars. Some people were seen crying.
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.
John Bacon and Greg Toppo, USA TODAY