David Roberts was finishing up a customer's haircut Saturday at the Cavallaro & Co. salon on the second floor of The Mall in Columbia when he heard the first shot. He looked at another employee, wondering whether they should be concerned.
"When we heard the second, that's when we were like, 'We need to go,'" said the 46-year-old stylist.
Directly across from the salon, three people had been shot at Zumiez, a skate apparel and gear store. Roberts initially led employees and customers out the back of the salon. When he came back for a fellow worker who was hiding under a desk, he saw three bodies on the ground.
"It was very obvious that they were deceased," Roberts said, adding that one body was inside Zumiez and two were lying out front.
The late-morning shootings at the suburban mall sent shoppers and workers scurrying for safety. Some rushed from the mall; others hid in shops or storerooms — wondering what was happening and when they could leave safely.
Jennifer Duchman Griffin, who works part-time at Sephora on the mall's upper level, said the store's staff sprang into action as soon as they got word of the shooting.
"We got an alert saying the mall was on lockdown," said Griffin, a local advertising manager at The Baltimore Sun. Sephora had an emergency plan in place: "We shut the doors and locked them."
She and about 14 others went to the skin care section at the back of the store for shelter. "Everybody stayed quiet. We were all reading our phones, texting. ... We stayed hidden."
When police came to escort her and the others out of the store, "it was hands in the air, stay to the left and walk out," she said.
"All I could think of is it's just like Columbine. ... This was the single scariest moment of my life."
Meredith Curtis-Goode was with her mother and young daughter, who was in a children's play area, when suddenly people started moving en masse toward the JCPenney store. Then she heard several shots.
Curtis-Goode grabbed her daughter, pinning her to her side, and moved quickly inside the H&M store. She then locked herself inside a bathroom with another woman and child.
"My daughter is 4, and the other boy was 3. We just wanted to make it not scary," said Curtis-Goode, communications director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.
People rushed from the mall so quickly that many left their belongings behind and were unable to get home.
Wanda Davila, 54, of Abingdon, an area manager for a cleaning company that works at the mall, was meeting with co-workers in the food court when she heard shots upstairs. She ducked into the back of the Chick-fil-A restaurant, leaving her coat and car keys behind. As the day wore on, she wondered how she would get them back.
Similarly, Laura McKindles, who works at a kiosk at the mall, fled into a perfume store after hearing a "rapid succession of gunshots," leaving behind her "house keys, wallet, everything." Outside, she boarded a school bus that took her and others to Howard County Community College.
Nesreen El Sayad, who owns Sweet Treat, said she heard the shots and ran to a storage closet to hide and wait for her husband to come get her. "I can't stay here. It is horrible. I just ran," said a visibly upset El Sayad. "I'm scared."
Evan Ye, 10, was with his parents, the owners of Wasabi Sushi, and they huddled in the closet wtih her. He said heard a few shots, and everyone ducked and started running. "I wasn't sure if they were kidding," he said — until more shots rang out. "And that's when my dad knew something was wrong."
Mohammed Zaidi, an 18-year-old employee at JC Penney, said customers ducked for cover after hearing gunshots. The store management then gathered people in the juniors department.
"Some people were crying and really scared," Zaidi said. "I was really surprised, especially here. You don't really see that here."
Calls and texts
Robin Stapleton of Columbia had just dropped her daughter, Lauryn, off at work when a frantic call came from her as she was barricaded in the mall.
"When you first hear it, it's like you've lost your child," Robin Stapleton said. "She was talking to me, but you're fearful.
"You don't know what's going on and she didn't know where the shooter was. … I thought I lost her because I couldn't be there for her."
Lauryn Stapleton, 18, said it sounded as though someone had dropped a brick from the upper level down to the food court.
"And then I heard [someone yell] 'Shots fired.' … It sounded like a popping noise, like something hitting metal really hard. It sounded like a brick sound. It just kept going and going and going," said the teen, who works at Cartoon Cuts, a children's barber shop, but whose boss had sent her to McDonald's for food.
"My instinct was to grab the kid next to me whose mother had a lot of stuff in her hands and I ran into Sears," she said. "All I saw was three people fall to the ground. I didn't know what they looked like or anything. All I saw is that they fell. I thought they were the ones to get shot. When I got to Sears I alerted everybody what was going on and they shut down the store."
Hiding in the back of a first-floor card shop, Lena Kennedy of Columbia texted her husband, Ian: "There's a shooter. We're in a back room. Don't come."
She had taken their 2-year-old daughter, Daphne, to the mall to buy a birthday present for another child. Ian Kennedy and their 4-year-old daughter, Penelope, had planned to meet up with them later.
"They were words that were divorced from meaning, like I couldn't comprehend them," Ian Kennedy said of his wife's message.
Lena Kennedy told him later that she grabbed Daphne from the stroller, abandoning it along with her purse, their coats and other belongings, and ran to hide. Police eventually came in and told them it was OK to leave, and as they walked outside, a woman in a car, a stranger, picked them up and took them to a nearby restaurant. There, she called her husband, who picked them up.
She "ran into the car ... crying a little," Ian Kennedy said. "I put on some music from the "Frozen" soundtrack for the girls."
Even with mass shootings becoming more commonplace in the United States, Ian Kennedy said he still felt such an event could never happen there.
"At least it wasn't worse," he said. "It's sad that these days we see, 'Oh three people are dead,' and it could have been worse.'"
The stroller and his wife and daughter's other belongings were still in the mall Saturday afternoon, and they were unsure when they would be able to retrieve them.
A 27-year-old Laurel man who works at the mall but did not want to be identified beyond his initials, K.T., posted online images within minutes of the shooting that showed buckshot damage on a wall.
In an interview, the man said the damage was on the wall near the Great American Cookie shop on the first floor. He said it was pointed out to him by a woman who said she saw the shots fired into the wall from the second floor.
The man said he helped usher other employees out of the mall and returned to let others know how to get out. "We didn't know what was going on, but we didn't hear anything as far as other shots," he said, describing the period before police arrived. "Nobody was telling us to leave or exit. We were hanging around waiting for word."
Howard County Council member Courtney Watson called the shooting "shocking."
"It's a very difficult time," Watson said. "Like everyone, I'm grateful to our first responders, and right now I'm very concerned about the victims and their families."
She added, "My heart goes out to the victims and their families. Zumiez has been a favorite store in the mall for both of my boys. We've been there many times for shoes, T-shirts or skateboards. The employees are always welcoming, fun and hip. It's so very heartbreaking for our community."
Council member Mary Kay Sigaty, whose district includes the mall, said she could see helicopters overhead and heard sirens from her Wilde Lake home as the incident unfolded.
She praised county police for their response. "I have been to the mall and seen our law enforcement folks working very diligently to sure people get out quickly."
She added, "My heart goes out to all of the folks who are going to be touched by this."
Baltimore Sun Media Group reporters Alison Knezevich, Kevin Rector, Eduardo A. Encina and Amanda Yeager contributed to this article.