When Patricia Sanders packed a Batman doodle pad into her purse Saturday morning, she couldn't have known it would provide anything more than a brief distraction for her 5-year-old son, Aidan, as he waited to get his hair cut at The Mall in Columbia.
Sanders and her son were waiting for an appointment at Cartoon Cuts, a children's hair salon on the second floor of the mall, when she heard gunshots.
"We were just sitting there," she recalled, when she heard a series of loud "pops."
At first, "it wasn't even registering to me what it was."
But the salon's manager jumped to action "in a split second," Sanders said. "The manager immediately threw down the gate to the store" and told staff and customers to head to the back.
Once the danger registered, Sanders' instincts quickly kicked in.
"The first thing I did was pick up Aidan and run," Sanders said. "You don't think about anything else."
The group huddled behind the store in a small hallway with three doors – one to Cartoon Cuts, one to vitamin and supplement store GNC and one to the outside.
The space was cramped. "It was a small hallway back there," the Columbia mother of two remembered. "One of three lights worked, and it was cold." In her haste, she had left behind her winter coat.
"You're trapped – you couldn't see out unless you opened the door," Sanders said of the space. Outside, there was commotion. "We just kept hearing footsteps… running around outside. You don't know whose they are."
And "you could smell fire." Somebody told her it was the smell of gunpowder from the shooting.
Sequestered in the hall, which some of the kids' fathers had barricaded to keep potential intruders out, the Cartoon Cuts group faced the added challenge of staying calm for their children's' sake.
With a group of approximately 10 children ranging in age from a nursing infant to an older kid who looked to Sanders to be about 12, it wasn't easy.
That's where Sanders' Batman doodle pad came in handy.
"All of us moms, of course, have junk in our purses and were just handing out goodies," she said.
She gave the drawing pad to a 2-year-old girl whose father was guarding the door. "We wrapped her dad's coat around her" and gave her the pad, she said. "That kept her occupied" until a SWAT officer found the group and escorted them out of the mall.
Aidan has grasped for familiar concepts to make sense of the day's events.
"Why is somebody setting fireworks off in the mall?" he asked Sanders about the gunshots.
And he got over the initial shock of the SWAT officer's arrival once he understood that the officer was there to help. "The guy that looked like the bad guy was actually the good guy," he explained to his mother.
Aidan got to meet a lot of good guys Saturday, Sanders said.
When the Cartoon Cuts group was evacuated, they were taken first to a fire and rescue bus, where they could warm up. Next, they went to the AMC Theatre in the mall's parking lot, where other evacuees were waiting.
Aidan struck up a conversation with some firefighters who had come to help with the rescue efforts. One of them let him try on the heavy brown jacket from his uniform. Sanders snapped a picture of her son grinning broadly, engulfed in the coat.
She wrote in an email accompanying the picture that those "hopefully are the memories my son will have... Hopefully, being 5, Aidan won't remember a lot of what actually happened."
Five hours after the shooting, she and her son were able to leave the mall through the help of a Red Cross worker who offered to drive them to the library to be picked up by Sanders' husband, who couldn't get into the still-barricaded mall parking lot.
Sanders said she was moved by how the whole community came together to support one another.
"The response and handling of this tragedy were amazing," she said. "Everybody just wanted to make sure you're safe, comfortable and warm."
She said she would be holding her kids even closer from now on.
"I know you can't prevent this stuff and you can't anticipate it," she said. "It's not going to stop me from going to the mall, but I'm definitely going to keep them close."