But their youngest nonetheless saw the picture that aired repeatedly in the media last week, of the doe-eyed young woman with the tattoo curling like a necklace above her shirt.

"Mommy, that's the girl who put my shoes on," the 7-year-old said, recognizing Benlolo as the saleswoman who had fitted her for sneakers recently at Zumiez skate shop. "Is she the one that got killed?"

Robinson too remembers the smiling Benlolo, who told her daughter the pink-and-black checkered shoes matched her coat.

"It's all just too close to home," Robinson said with a sigh.

'This will pass for me'

David Roberts considers the mall his Main Street. Having moved to Columbia when he was in high school, he worked at several places there before landing at Cavallaro & Co. hair salon 26 years ago.

He was blowing dry a customer's hair at his station, the second-closest chair to the door, when he heard the first shot. Given how sound echoes through the mall, he and the other employees and customers weren't even sure where it came from — although they soon realized the gunman was right across the hall from them at Zumiez.

Everyone headed to the rear into a back hallway, except for the receptionist, who ducked under the front desk. She called one of her co-workers on her cellphone, and Roberts told her to wait until she no longer heard sounds — then to run as fast as she could to the back. Roberts and his boss then went out to pull down the gate at the front of the shop.

It would be hours before he could leave — police had shepherded employees and shoppers into safe areas before letting them return to their cars and drive home. Roberts stopped at a friend's house, had some beer and food, and then headed home to Baltimore. A tire blew out on his car on the highway and he waited a couple of hours for a friend to come help him.

By the time he got home, it was 10:30 p.m., and yet he just tossed and turned.

"I didn't sleep until Sunday night," he said.

While he saw the bodies of the shooter and the victims, it's actually the sound of the shotgun that has haunted him. "It keeps playing in my head," he said.

Still, Roberts said, he doesn't want to make more of his experience, troubling as it was.

"I'm not their family, I'm not the victim," he said. "This will pass for me."

Stressed yet caring

Oddly enough, Liz Dunster never considered herself much of a mall person despite living within a mile of one, but now she feels the need to embrace it. Since the shootings, she's returned several times — to get the birthday present she had initially set out for last Saturday, to attend the candlelight vigil, meet friends for coffee at the Starbucks and just show support for the merchants who took care of her.

She was at the Pandora jewelry store, at a distance from the shooting, for a specific charm to give a friend for her birthday. Once the employees learned of the shooting, they locked the front doors and led shoppers to a back room. She didn't get a chance to buy the charm and missed the birthday party later that day.

About 15 of them crowded into the narrow space, among them, a second-grade girl and a couple of elderly women — one of whom proved particularly adept at getting information on her phone and reaching a son who turned on CNN and relayed updates.

Dunster has to chuckle now at her own technological failure: She texted her husband and teenage son on what little battery power was left on her phone, but they didn't see the messages. Instead, her "human network" of friends, who noticed she was the only one not responding to various messages, alerted her husband.

"That is indicative of the community," said Dunster who moved to Columbia nine years ago. "They were all checking on one another."