www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/howard/columbia/ph-ho-cf-mall-recovery--20140127,0,5877457.story

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Community begins to rebuild as Columbia mall reopens

By Luke Lavoie, llavoie@tribune.com

8:25 PM EST, January 27, 2014

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When the doors opened to The Mall in Columbia Monday for the first time since a gunman killed two store employees before killing himself, 20-year-old Kristen Lowman was one of the first people through the door.

Approximately 50 hours earlier, Lowman recalls standing inside Macy's 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!"

Lowman said she didn't think she could return to the mall, a place she has frequented while growing up in nearby Elkridge. But something drew her back.

"I wanted to come in the first place because I was here," she said on her way to place a bouquet of flowers at one of two memorials established.

"A lot of my friends knew (Tyler Johnson, 25, one of the victims), so I wanted to pay my respects."

But, Lowman acknowledged, "it's hard, I still have trouble believing what happened. I don't know if I can ever shop here again."

She reflected the mixed emotions that many brought with them.

Howard County's political leaders showed their solidarity by joining each other for lunch in the food court. Stores reopened, although Zumiez, where Saturday's shooting took place, remained closed. Patrons returned, although many carried heavy hearts. And police continued to search for a motive for why 19-year-old Darion Marcus Aguilar, of College Park, killed Brianna Benlolo, 21, of Colleget Park, and Tyler, of Mount Airy, before turning the gun on himself Saturday morning.

Wilde Lake High School student Amennu McGruder, 16, is a regular customer at Zumiez. He said he was in the store last week and that Benlolo helped him grip his skateboard.

"She seemed pretty cool," he said.

McGruder also said he was in the food court when the shooting occurred, and that returning to the mall on a regular basis will be difficult.

"I usually go on Saturdays, that's when everybody goes," said McGruder. "Honestly, I don't think many people are going to come back this Saturday or the next Saturday. A lot of people are saying they are scared to come back."

Kevin Osai, who works at H&M, said he knew most of the employees at Zumiez and talked with Benlolo on Friday.

"It's rough, just having talked to somebody before, and then they're gone," Osai said. "It's not been a good weekend."

Osai said he wanted to move forward "with open hearts, minds and positivity. There's not much way backwards that we can go," he said.

Llifelong Columbia resident Regina Clay was among those who thought it was important to be at the mall when it reopened on Monday.

"The mall is about community, it's about people coming together, meeting, relating," Clay said.

She has two children, ages 10 and 7, and said she will not hesitate to let them go to the mall when they become teenagers.

"I will say I am a person who does not operate in a spirit of fear," Clay said. "I would always tell my children to be careful. It's happening everywhere. What am I going to say, 'No, you can't go to the mall?' "

Joan Lancos, a Columbia resident and community activist, said the mall is "the center of the community," and she thnks the community will bounce back.

"As you can already see on Facebook and Twitter, people are already planning to be here," she said."They recognize this is an anomaly. This is still our place, and we need to show everyone we need to be back."

A number of state, local and federal politicians attended the reopening, including Gov. Martin O'Malley, County Executive Ken Ulman and the two vying to succeed him, County Council member Courtney Watson and District 9 State Senator Allan Kittleman.

Watson said she thought the community would be "wrestling" with the tragedy "over the weeks to come.

"I think in the future, the community will heal, but it will take time," she said.

She and Kittleman shared lunch from food court restaurant Sarku Japan.

Kittleman said he thought an important part of the healing process was a return to normalcy.

"I've had some people say, 'Oh, I'm never going to go to the mall again,' and I say.' No, that's not the way to respond. You need to go back, you need to shop.' These are our neighbors who run these businesses here and these shops, and we need to support them and we need to support the community spirit of Howard County," he said. "So I'm confident we're going to get by this and we're going to be even stronger."

County Council member Mary Kay Sigaty, whose district includes the mall, said she has talked with people with a wide range of reactions to the shooting.

"I continue to find that it impacts people in different ways," she said.

But, she added, "I believe that people will be back." 

Staff writer Amanda Yeager contributed to this report