Boca police chief said “something definitely happened in that mall,’’ but authorities have not found any shell casings and said the blasts could have come from fireworks. One man was hospitalized with “traumatic injuries” to his face sustained in the chaos.
BOCA RATON — SWAT descended on the Town Center mall Sunday afternoon after reports of gunshots within sent shoppers scattering. One person was taken to the hospital. And for several hours that followed confusion reigned while hundreds, perhaps thousands, remained huddled in recesses of the sprawling shopping mecca awaiting the all-clear.
Mall-goers reported hearing a tell-tale pop-pop-pop near the Lululemon store about 3:30 p.m. By 4 p.m., Boca Raton police had taken to Twitter to echo those reports, followed by an announcement that they were “working an active incident” and that one person with a gunshot wound was taken to the hospital.
But that assessment was short-lived.
By 8 p.m., as police continued to clear the property, Police Chief Dan Alexander said “something definitely happened in that mall,’’ but authorities had not found any gun shell casings and said the blasts could have come from fireworks.
As for the man who went to the hospital, it appears he hit his head on the pushbar of a door, Alexander said.
While only further investigation will reveal whether the gunfire was real, the fear and trauma it caused for even a short period of time was genuine.
Hordes bolted for the exits, while thousands more sought refuge in what safe spots could be found in the bowels of the likes of PINK and 7 for All Man Kind.
Rainy weather had driven West Boca Raton High junior Gabi Rothenberg and her friends from the beach to the mall in search of food. They’d been there maybe half an hour, Rothenberg, eating a falafel in the food court, when they heard something like a balloon popping. The wave of panic from that noise sent them running for Forever 21.
In an exchange that has become all too common, Rothenberg called her mom, who flooded the line with “I love you’s.”
The gravity of the situation didn’t hit home for Rothenberg until SWAT arrived about an hour later to escort her and others through back halls and outside into a parking lot.
“That’s when I started freaking out, when I saw all those guns,” Rothenberg said.
In her haste to exit the mall, Rothenberg left her phone and wallet behind. She spent the rest of the evening with other escapees at the Chipotle across the street doing homework and waiting to retrieve her belongings.
John O’Keefe, 28, was camped at the fast food joint as well. He would like his flip flops. They fell off as he and hundreds of others rushed out the rear exit of the Apple Store. In the rush, O’Keefe said he saw some people get trampled.
Only minutes earlier he’d been trying on an Apple Watch: “I wish it was on my wrist, but don’t tell these guys,” he said with a nod to the dozens of nearby police.
“It’s scary,” said Alejandro Vizcaino, who was shopping with family in Macy’s when the panic began. A manager there escorted all six of them outside, where they’d been waiting for more than three hours to get their car from the Bloomingdale’s lot.
Some families who arrived to shop together were cleaved apart as circumstance sent some flying out the doors and others ducking for safety in storerooms.
A mom and dad from Texas shoe shopping with one daughter in Neiman Marcus said they didn’t hear a thing but wound up following panicked shoppers into the parking lot. From there, they were texting with daughter No. 2 who was huddling at the back of PINK with some 20 others.
“Nobody’s freaking out too bad,” daughter Claire assured her parents.
At 9:30 p.m., police announced the mall had been cleared and made way for employees and shoppers to retrieve anything left behind.
On most Sundays, the Town Center at Boca Raton on Glades Road opens from noon to 6 p.m. The one-story property opened in 1980 just west of the interstate is one of the area’s most high-end malls, boasting a Bloomindale’s, Nordstrom, Saks Fifth Avenue and Macy’s.
In 2007, the mall was the site of one of the area’s most chilling crimes, the murder of Nancy Bochicchio, 47, and her 7-year-old daughter. They were kidnapped coming out of the mall Dec. 12 and later found bound and shot to death in their SUV in the mall parking lot.
A year earlier, on Christmas Eve shots rang out in the Boynton Beach Mall, killing one man in what was described as a targeted execution.
More recently, in 2017, police say a dispute between two men over “drug rip-offs” lead to a shooting in the parking lot of The Gardens Mall.
The news has shown us that movie theaters, churches and shopping centers aren’t necessarily safe havens either. Preparing for an active shooter has become a ubiquitous task among the nation’s students at school.
When eighth-grader Carsen Nilsen and his buddy heard screaming, “Both of us — gut instincts told us to get out.” Still, hours later, he was sticking around. He’d come to the mall, to Pottery Barn, to buy his mom a mug. A gift of appreciation. And he was determined to head back into the mall. He wasn’t leaving the mug behind.
Staff writers Christine Stapleton, Leslie Streeter, John Pacenti, Tony Doris and Kristina Webb contributed to this report.
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