Anxious employees had many questions as they gathered in movie theater seats for a security briefing on their first day back to work at The Mall in Columbia since a deadly weekend shooting: How can workers spot threats? Are there enough security cameras? How did the shooter conceal his weapon?
Howard County Police Chief Bill McMahon reminded workers that the mall has for years been a secure and friendly gathering place for Columbia and the surrounding area, though he acknowledged that the shooting has left an indelible mark.
"Three people lost their lives in that mall," he said. "The mall will never be the same."
Much remains unanswered about the Saturday attack in which police say 19-year-old Darion Marcus Aguilar shot and killed skate shop employees Brianna Benlolo, 21, and Tyler Johnson, 25. Police are trying to understand what motivated the attack and whether Aguilar knew the victims.
The security briefing for more than 300 employees underscored a larger challenge for county and mall officials, who also need to assure a community it's safe to return. While officials pledged increased security Monday and local politicians and Gov. Martin O'Malley made appearances at the mall — Columbia's social and economic center — some residents said they weren't ready to return.
Camila Lopez, 35, said she regularly sends her daughter to the mall on weekends. But for now, 15-year-old Genesis Smith will have to find someplace else to spend her Saturdays. Her mother suggested bowling, skating or the movies.
"My fear is copycatters," Lopez said.
The attack was especially jarring for the family, because Genesis liked to hang around Zumiez, the store where the victims worked. She said she didn't know them well.
Though the mall reopened Monday at 1 p.m., the Zumiez store remains boarded up. A black-lettered sign announces that it will be closed until further notice.
Officials said they have increased security staffing levels around the mall and would continue to review safety plans as they learn more about the attack, but they declined to give details.
While the mall's corridors were quieter than usual, officials said they were heartened by the crowd that gathered Monday.
"We know that a terrible, tragic incident occurred here, we'll always know what happened," Howard County Executive Ken Ulman said as people trickled in. "On the other hand, look around. People are back. They're shopping; they're eating."
A simple memorial stands in front of a pool at the center of the mall, and customers will be asked to float flowers and leave written memories in a book. Another memorial has been erected outside the mall and is scheduled to be the site of a vigil Thursday.
Kristen Lowman, flowers in hand, was one of the first people through the doors when the mall opened Monday. Lowman, 20, said she was standing inside Macy's on Saturday with her father and 12-year-old brother when a frantic crowd of people stormed toward her shouting, "Somebody is shooting. Get out, get out."
At first, Lowman said, she didn't think she could return to the mall, a place she frequented for years growing up in nearby Elkridge. But something drew her back, she said as she headed to place a bouquet of flowers at a memorial. "I wanted to come in the first place because I was here," she said, adding that she also wanted to pay her respects.
"It's hard, I still have trouble believing what happened," she said. "I don't know if I can ever shop here again."
Others said the shooting wouldn't keep them away. Mariah Dixon, 26, of Towson stopped at the mall food court to grab a lunch of orange chicken. She said the mall was the most convenient place to eat after an appointment at Fort Meade.
"I'm not scared," she said. "I'm in the Army Reserve."
Mall patron Tri Hua, 30, said shoppers seemed to be buying necessities, not browsing. The mall seemed quiet, he said, with no laughter or conversation wafting up to the balcony where he stood.
"If you see the parking lot, it's pretty empty, " Hua added.
But some stores continued to be a draw. Outside the Apple store, a small crowd waited for the opening as employees huddled in the back. A cheer went up when the shoppers were allowed in.
The governor visited the mall Monday, a decision he said he hoped would symbolize how all the people of the state are standing behind Columbia.
"The tragedies that unfolded here over the weekend reminded us that in places all around our state, that all of us are human, therefore all of us are vulnerable, " O'Malley said. "But also there are a lot of good people in our state who understand the senselessness and tragedy of violence."
Ashley Venable, the mall's senior general manager, thanked the Police Department for its support.
"As a community we will heal together," she said.
McMahon said his officers are working to uncover a motive in the shooting. He said he believes workers and shoppers will feel more at ease if it turns out that the shooter and victims knew one another. Random attacks can be more difficult to understand than those explained in the context of some existing relationship, he said.
"In some ways, if this was a domestic-related incident, or if we know there was some personal conflict between the shooter and the two young people who were killed, we would be able to say, 'Yes it's a tragedy — it is — but I am not involved in that, so I am safe,'" McMahon said. "Until we can establish that, the prospect of this just being somebody that came in with no known relation to the mall or the victims, to come in and shoot people, is very troubling."
At the security briefing, mall employees packed into the AMC movie theater, the last to arrive lining up on the stairs to listen. McMahon urged staff to try to return to their normal routines.
Employees, many of whom raised their hands when asked if they'd been at work Saturday, had a number of questions for McMahon and Ulman, who also attended the briefing.
One employee asked what advice police have for helping them spot gunmen in the future.
McMahon said it can be difficult to spot a gun when people are bundled up against the cold, but he encouraged staff to call police whenever something looks amiss.
Another asked whether the mall needed more security cameras, after McMahon said there were some holes in surveillance footage of the shooter's movements. He said officials would examine the security system.
Another asked whether it's right for a 19-year-old to be able to buy a shotgun legally. Police have said Aguilar used a Mossberg 12-gauge shotgun purchased last month in Montgomery County.
Ulman and McMahon said there would be time to explore such issues once police had a more detailed picture of what happened Saturday.
After the briefing, employees gathered in the mall, many pausing at the bottom of an escalator to toss white flowers with long stems into the pool that will serve as a memorial to Saturday's victims.
Some lined up to write messages in a book of condolences, while across the way two people raised the grate on the Gymboree store to get ready to open for business.
Some said it was too soon to tell how shoppers would react, and if they would return. David Youngblood, 47, said he was eager to get back on the job selling Traeger Grills. Youngblood was there Saturday, working on his iPad, when the shooting happened. "I literally dropped my iPad and ran off," he said.
"Either they're going to shy away or maybe they're going to do like Boston Strong … Columbia Strong," he said, referring to the public response following the Boston Marathon bombing. "I'll find a way to sell grills whatever."
Later in the afternoon, Youngblood said business had been slow. Winter is not a great time for selling grills anyway, he said. But the weekend before the Super Bowl might have been a bright spot.
By early evening, he said he had yet to make a sale.
Baltimore Sun Media Group reporter Luke Lavoie contributed to this article.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun