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After the gunfire, shoppers and workers confront emotional toll

Shafon Robinson found comfort in how well her children seemed to be coping this past week. They had been elsewhere in The Mall in Columbia when the shooter killed two store employees and — in a moment that still haunts her — turned and fired at her.

He missed, and in the ensuing days, Robinson felt the fallout for her family would be limited — until she received a call from the school about her youngest.

"She won't stop screaming," Robinson said she was told.

Anxious outbursts, restless nights and troubled dreams have followed home some of the shoppers and workers who were at the mall last Saturday. Their turmoil may pale in comparison to the grief of those who lost loved ones that day, but counselors say such a terrifying event in what is essentially Columbia's town square could produce emotional collateral damage.

"It was a tough day for the whole community," said Andrea Ingram, director of Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center in Columbia. The group was among several who offered immediate support, calling in extra counselors as their office phones rang incessantly in the wake of the shootings.

"Everyone's just heartbroken over the young people who died," she said. "And people are fearful as well."

That such a seemingly safe and familiar place could be so violently breached makes last Saturday's tragedy even more devastating, psychologists say. Many knew the victims, Brianna Benlolo and Tyler Johnson, the co-workers at Zumiez, if only by face or chance encounter. And the shooter, Darion Marcus Aguilar, who turned his gun on himself, was someone known to hang out at the mall.

Shoppers and employees at the mall Saturday observed a moment of silence at the exact time the shootings began one week ago. That followed a candlelight vigil attended by hundreds earlier in the week. Among them was Kerri Nussbaum, a hairstylist who works at a salon across from Zumiez. Not only was she physically close to the shootings, but Nussbaum also knew "Bri" and had previously cut her hair.

"It was a traumatic event," said Nussbaum, who works at Cavallaro & Co. "The whole process has been hard."

And the process continues, she might have added, except she just couldn't say more. "It's too soon," she said.

Panic at the Playground

"I normally cry so easily, but I've just been frozen," said Pinar Moon, who was with her two children in the play area when the gunfire erupted. "I can't get emotional."

Her family had just eaten breakfast at Panera Bread, and her husband, Melborne, went to have a cellphone repaired at a kiosk in the food court area. She took their 5-year-old son and 18-month-old daughter to play.

When the gunfire erupted, Pinar Moon said she and the other parents jumped into the play area, some stepping over other children in a panicked effort to reach their own. Luckily, she said, her husband made his way back and they followed the employees from the nearby H&M clothing store who beckoned them into the store.

"They were amazing," she said, echoing a common sentiment from Saturday. The workers locked down the store and took the two dozen or so parents and kids into an employees' area in back, Moon said.

There was an exit to the parking lot from there, but workers suggested everyone shelter in place until police let them know it was safe to leave, she said.

They found paper plates and markers to entertain the kids. At one point, she remembers "jumping out" of her skin at the sound of screaming — which someone later told her was a person having panic attack in a nearby restroom.

Moon said her daughter was largely oblivious to what was going on but her son might have picked up the undercurrent of anxiety.

"He doesn't like it when anyone is upset, so he started making up songs," she said. "He was singing, 'We'll all be OK. Don't worry, everything will be fine.' He was making 'love cards' for people, drawing hearts. It was like a reversal, he was trying to assure us."

She remembered how in 2012 she and her husband had decided not to tell their son about the children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School. But he heard about it from other kids and got confused, thinking the schoolchildren had done something wrong.

"I'm a good boy," he had told her, "because I don't want to get killed."

So in the H&M backroom, they told him: "There is a bad person in the mall with a gun, but we are safe." It bothers her, Moon said, that "in his little life he's already seen these things happen."

After about an hour and a half, she estimated, a SWAT team arrived. Police were still treating the scene as an "active shooter" situation, so officers ordered everyone to put their hands up as they were ushered out of the mall.

Since then, Moon said, she's had a couple of nightmares that she attributes to how helpless she felt.

"As a parent, you get scared that you can't protect your children," she said. "I had a nightmare that my girl was riding a bike and she fell into an ocean-like thing and I couldn't get to her."

She feels "pulled" to return to the mall, because staying away feels like giving in to fear. She went back last week, to find the H&M employees who had been so kind to them on Saturday.

Still, Moon said, when a friend asked her husband and her how they were doing, she replied that they were much better every day — but her husband interjected wryly, "Speak for yourself."

'Too close to home'

Robinson can't imagine returning to the place where she nearly became another of Aguilar's victims — and where her husband, Terrance Lilly, was injured trying to get to their children.

They have been through some hard times of late, illnesses and unemployment that have forced them to stay with friends or in other temporary housing. They've always enjoyed the mall — Robinson once worked at the Radio Shack there, and Lilly, a barber, lived for a time in Columbia.

The two were near the food court at the time with the daughter of a friend. When the shots rang out, Robinson said, the girl shrieked, prompting Aguilar to turn and aim his gun at them. She froze, and Lilly yelled at her to duck. A shot sailed over her head, striking a wall, and a second one landed nearby as well, she said.

Lilly raced up the stairs to get to their daughters, who were riding the carousel. He ran into a pillar, breaking several bones in his face. He hustled the girls outside and tried to get back to Robinson, but police had started to lock down parts of the mall.

Robinson was taken by police into a car to be questioned as a witness, along with a shopper who was in the Zumiez skate shop where Aguilar opened fire. Eventually, she and her husband were taken to a movie theater across from the mall with other shoppers until it was safe to leave.

There, a nurse told Lilly he should get medical care and got ice to put on his face. He was taken to Howard County General Hospital and then to Shock Trauma for surgery.

On a recent morning as they sipped juice and coffee at a fast food restaurant, Robinson frequently ran her finger gently down her husband's cheek, or flicked one of those specks only a wife can see from a corner of his eye or the stubble on his chin.

Lilly seemed wary, his eyes darting back and forth as people came and left the restaurant, and he fretted about what he thought was an inadequate lock on the door where they're staying.

Robinson expects to avail herself of counseling at some point, while Lilly already sees someone for previous issues with anxiety. They play the incident over in their heads, and land in different places.

"I just feel bad," said Robinson. "Just for the families [of the victims], the people that were there, even the shooter. He was so young. I can still see his face."

"I just wish I could have gotten him," Lilly said, shaking his head.

They're thankful their kids weren't in the immediate vicinity, and they try to keep reminders of the shooting from them.

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."

It was the same in that cramped space, as the hours ticked on and Dunster said she "lost all concept of time."

She learned that one of the people sheltered with her had also been at the Navy Yard in Washington last fall when a gunman killed 12 people. The woman explained the procedures police go through before releasing people during an active-shooter incident, which is why they had to hunker down for so long.

At one point, the little girl got hungry, and one of the employees "dug into her lunch box" and offered a banana. Eventually, the meatballs that were in there were passed down to the child as well. And then one of the staff members found a phone charger too.

"They really went above and beyond," Dunster said, a point she also made in a letter to the store's headquarters. "They must have been so stressed out, and yet they were so comforting and caring."

'Capacity to overcome'

"Preparedness does help," said Maria Mouratidis, a psychologist who specializes in trauma and has treated troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

People should find comfort in the response to the shootings, Mouratidis said. The response on Saturday, which seemed to follow the accepted guidelines — workers and shoppers sheltered in place; police secured the mall before allowing people to leave.

Still, she said, there's an understandable unease from being even tangentially connected to the shootings, coming as they did in such an unlikely setting.

"It shattered the sense of 'I'm safe here,'" said Mouratidis, chairman of the psychology department at Notre Dame of Maryland University. "It's extremely stressful."

Mouratidis said there will be a range of reactions, with those closest to the crime the most seriously affected — particularly if they felt they were in immediate danger or unable to help those who were.

Those farther from danger will likely feel anxious, although that should prove fleeting — and if not, she would advise seeking help.

"We don't want to minimize the traumatic effect," Mouratidis said. "But not every stressful event is traumatic."

Even those who have seen the worst, though, can take heart, she said. One of the most gratifying parts of her field, she has learned, is that when you study trauma, what you're also studying is resilience — and she has seen it even in the most traumatic of events.

"We have to trust in our capacity to overcome and to bounce back," she said, "and in how we are actually quite durable."

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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