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'I think there was a shooting’: How fear of a mass attack fueled Black Friday confusion at NY mall

By CHRIS LIBONATI | syracuse.com | Published: November 30, 2019

SYRACUSE, N.Y. (Tribune News Service) — Chase Sherwood had just clocked out for his break at the Hollister store at Destiny USA around 7 p.m. on Black Friday. He headed to the food court, when he heard a sound from across the cavern in the middle of the mall.

“Everybody started running,” said Sherwood, 19.

Gunshots have mostly been idle for Sherwood, noises from a shooting range near his house. On Friday, it felt like an immediate threat. A store security guard, who said he is an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan, knew the sound immediately. He ushered Sherwood, other employees and customers into Hollister’s stock room.

At many stores, customers and employees huddled in back rooms. At others, shoppers were locked out.

In a now-deleted tweet, Syracuse police referred to the noise as fireworks.

“Possible fireworks. Nothing else at this point. Cancel any unit responding,” an officer called out over the police radio at about 7:15 p.m. (This only directed further responding units, not those who had already arrived on the call.)

About seven minutes later, police found the victim.

“In the mall, be advised we now have a report of a shooting victim at the mall,” a dispatcher said. “In the back of Swarovski’s near Kay Jewelers, food court. Two gunshot wounds to the leg.”

On Black Friday, thousands rushed out of the mall in droves. Officers with long guns and others with K-9s tried to find the shooter. Police say they haven’t found their suspect, though they have scheduled a news conference at 11 a.m. Saturday to discuss “significant information.” The 20-year-old, with three gunshot wounds to the leg, was taken to Upstate University Hospital and is expected to survive.

Only fear lingered at the mall Friday, rooted in the concern that the United States’ next mass shooting found Syracuse. For the second time in two years, Black Friday at the mall turned violent. In 2018, a fight led to a stabbing with crime scenes on two separate floors of the mall.

Shoppers ran for safety and hid in bathrooms. Store employees pulled down gates and brought employees to back rooms. At the Disney store, workers entertained kids with coloring books and police emptied the movie theater. People, in tears, called and texted relatives for information or reassurance. Some just wanted a ride.

“This does not appear to be a random act,” Buckner said. “It also came out that someone thought there was an active shooter. That was not the case.”

“We could’ve had 1,000 police officers here and you can’t always prevent stupidity,” Buckner added later. “Anyone who would do something like that with a crowded mall is obviously someone we need to ... (hold) accountable for what happened tonight.”

The co-worker Sherwood planned on meeting, who asked to only be identified as Leanna, was sitting in a massage chair just below the food court when she heard the shot.

She thought something had been dropped. Then she heard screaming. Then running. She scrambled for the bathroom.

Leanna, an Ithaca College freshman, and a group of girls locked themselves in and waited.

"I was on the phone with my grandma. I didn't know what to do," she said. "There were a bunch of younger girls in there crying."

Someone knocked at the door.

Initially, they didn't open it.

As they heard feet shuffle and more knocks, they decided it was OK to leave the bathroom.

Leanna walked back to Hollister.

By the time the gunshot’s echo reached Lord and Taylor, it sounded muffled – like something heavy had fallen, said Gigi Kawar, a Syracuse University graduate.

She was in a dressing room, trying on clothes. An employee spoke over the store’s intercom system and called all employees to a register, Kawar said. The woman returned to the intercom a short time later, calling for people to leave quickly. An employee came to the dressing rooms to make the same request.

Panicked, Kawar put on her clothes and ran out of the store and into the parking lot.

“And then they just locked the doors,” Kawar said.

Kawar ordered a Lyft. As she stood outside, she saw the Air 1 sheriff’s helicopter circle above and police car lights flash. She heard kids cry and cars honk.

“I didn't know what to do or where to go,” Kawar said. “I just stood there waiting for something to happen.”

For the next hour and 10 minutes, Kawar stood outside waiting for her ride.

Most others waited in the back of stores. They prayed with relatives or made sure to follow the active shooter training they’d received at work.

They stayed hidden for 30 to 45 minutes.

Even around 8 p.m., as the mall was being cleared, there was a scare. Three officers appeared to run down the stairs leading to the carousel entrance of the mall. Dozens of others followed the officers, and several people shouted “bomb.” Officers are unsure what caused the scare, police said.

The dash caught Thomas Swiney, of Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. He had already run from the mall after the initial shot and went back in search of family. Running out of the mall a second time, Swiney fell on the escalator, he said. His knuckles and his legs were bleeding.

As people exited, officials at the mall interspersed a message between cheery songs over the speakers: “Attention, all guests, Destiny USA will be closed for the evening. We are requesting that everyone in the center please safely make your way to an exit.”

Rather than wait near the mall, some walked toward Park Street. As cars drove toward the mall, walkers shouted, “Go home. There was a shooting.”

In the chaos, Leanna, Sherwood and a third Hollister employee, Romy Nguyen, still found each other.

They sat in the foyer to the carousel entrance of the mall at about 8:15 p.m. as they waited for parents.

“I was like, ‘I think there was a shooting,’ ” Sherwood said he texted his dad from the Hollister stock room. “We didn’t know for sure yet until (Syracuse police) posted something on Twitter.”

As the three talked, a group chat with about 50 Hollister employees roared.

“Right now, it doesn’t really feel real … I feel more comfortable now than I did in the moment,” Leanna said.

A picture popped up on her phone. The contact read “Momma.”

___

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