COLUMBIA, Md. — Three people were killed Saturday morning when shots rang out at a shopping mall in this suburban Maryland community, sending patrons running from stores and hiding under tables in the food court.
When police officers arrived, they found three dead inside a store on the upper level of the two-story mall.
Howard County Police said the victims were 21-year-old Brianna Benlolo of College Park, Md., and 25-year-old Tyler Johnson of Ellicott City, Md. The unidentified gunman also died. Police said they believe he shot himself and had acted alone.
Benlolo and Johnson both worked at Zumiez, which sells skate apparel and accessories.
The shootings at The Mall in Columbia — located between Washington and Baltimore — set off fears in the area as residents waited to hear from loved ones and concern across the country over thoughts of another mass killing.
But at a news conference held within two hours of the gunshots, the county police chief, William J. McMahon, said he believed the shootings were an isolated episode involving just the three people who were found dead.
Howard County General Hospital said late Saturday that five people who were injured had all been treated and released.
“To our knowledge, all the activity took place at one time, in one store,” McMahon said.
He said that only one weapon had been found at the scene and that police officers had not fired any shots. The suspect had a large amount of ammunition on him. The authorities approached him with caution because they were concerned that he had other weapons and wanted to make sure he did not have explosives.
At a news conference Saturday afternoon, the Howard County executive, Ken Ulman, said it had been a “tremendously trying few hours.”
He added, “We want to send our thoughts and prayers to the family members of the victims.”
McMahon said that uniformed patrol officers were the first to arrive on the scene and that they immediately went into the mall.
They were joined a short time later by SWAT team members who began sweeping the mall, looking for other potential gunmen and assisting shoppers who were hiding inside stores. The authorities had asked people to stay there until they were sure it was safe to leave.
McMahon said his officers had not determined a motive for the attack.
One of the injured persons had a gunshot wound to the foot, and the other four were treated for a medical condition or a minor injury like a twisted ankle.
By 4 p.m., all of the people inside the mall had been cleared out and police investigators were examining the crime scene.
The mall, a huge complex with almost 200 stores, including a Macy’s, a Sears, and a movie theater, had opened around 10 a.m. and was busy on the chilly day.
Henry Callahan, 19, was seated at a table in the food court when he heard “what sounded like a trash can being thrown over the balcony.” He heard someone shout that a man had a gun and more screaming from upstairs.
He hid under the table with a family that had a young child. He heard about nine shots fired, he said.
“I was legitimately frightened,” Callahan said. “I had no idea what was going on.”
“The panic on their faces was tremendous,” he said of the family he was hiding with.
Callahan said he and the family had hopped the counter at an Arby’s restaurant and escaped through a security door in the back hallway.
Law enforcement officials arrived quickly, McMahon said. Around 12:20 p.m., the Police Department tweeted that the episode appeared to be over and that no additional shots had been heard.
“One deceased subject located near gun and ammunition. ID unknown,” the police tweeted shortly after the first officers had entered the mall.
The department continued to post frequent updates to Twitter throughout the afternoon.
Outside the mall Saturday afternoon, there was a swarm of emergency vehicles. Helicopters hovered overhead, and heavily armed officers stood on watch.
McMahon noted that the police had staged an emergency drill at the mall in the past, which he said had helped them respond to the shooting.
The mall was built in 1971 in Columbia, Md., a planned community about 25 miles from Washington and about 15 miles from Baltimore. The town has about 97,000 residents spread over 10 separate villages.
Along with the nearby Ellicott City, it was named by Money magazine as one of the best places to live in America in 2010.
The mall was to remain closed through the night. It was not clear when it would reopen.