As I stood in The Mall in Columbia parking lot throughout the day and night Saturday, I received a few questions on Twitter about why I, a sports reporter who covers the Orioles for The Baltimore Sun, was there reporting on the shooting.
So, before you continue to read, know that this blog isn’t about the Orioles or what they’ve done or haven’t done this offseason.
But it is to answer that first question in much more than 140 characters.
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To me, it was a little personal.
When violence occurs locally, we are often cliché in saying that it happens too close to home. But for me, this was home.
I am a Howard County kid, born and raised. I grew up on the Howard County side of the train tracks in Jessup, and I went to Howard High School in Ellicott City.
And growing up, as most who have lived in Howard County know, I learned that the mall is the heartbeat of everything that goes on in Columbia. That’s the way James Rouse planned it when he organized it some 50 years ago.
As a child, I rode the carousel next to Sears. As a teenager, I scarfed down slices of pizza at Mamma Ilardo’s in the food court. As a teen growing up in Howard County at that time, more than likely there were two places you went to hang out -- the mall or the old Columbia Palace 9 movie theater, which no longer exists. Sometimes the front of the local High’s store sufficed as a hangout spot.
But the mall was really the spot. Sam Goody's was where I’d get my music (on cassette tapes back then). But most of the time, my money went to a baseball card store on the upper level – long since closed – that was across from where the Zumiez store currently sits.
So when I first heard the news of a shooting at the mall -- around 11:25 a.m., when Howard County Fire and EMS first tweeted about a report of an active shooter -- I was compelled to go to the scene. I still live nearby, and I thought I could be one of the first media people there.
As reporters, we are always taught to separate ourselves from the stories we tell. In some circumstances, that's more difficult than others. We are also all human. And that is my mall.
Three young people lost their lives Saturday morning. Why this happened is still unknown.
In the parking lot, I met 18-year-old Lauryn Stapleton, who arrived at her job Saturday morning expecting nothing out of the ordinary. She works at Cartoon Cuts, which is a store where kids get can get their hair cut or have themed parties in which they can pretend to be rock stars or at a Hawaiian luau.
Stapleton, a graduate of Oakland Mills High School last year, had gone down to the food court to get her boss something to eat when she heard several gunshots ring out. She grabbed a toddler sitting on the restaurant counter and ran for cover into Sears.
After that, she ran back to her work to help comfort a bunch of scared and confused kids, hiding in a hallway until a tactical team let them out.
Among the biggest questions on my mind was, what do you tell a group of kids that they’re safe when you don’t know you are?
“You’ve got to stay as calm as you can and just tell them everything’s going to be OK and hug them and keep them safe,” Stapleton said, fighting back tears.
Meanwhile, she was on the phone with her mother, Robin, who had just dropped her daughter off at work. Robin Stapleton jumped back into her minivan and drove to the mall.
Robin’s husband and son are both local firefighters, so they’ve seen their share of danger, but Lauryn is the youngest of her four children.
“She’s my baby,” said Robin, who has lived in Columbia for 17 1/2 years. “We were in contact with each other, but until you see her, you just never know.”
Once she saw her daughter come out of the store, they ran to each other and shared a long embrace.
“We cried on each other’s shoulders and we didn’t let go,” the mother said.
That’s just one story of many that were told on Saturday. As Howard County executive Ken Ulman, a Centennial High graduate who is 2 1/2 years older than myself, told me this late Saturday night:
“Obviously it was a tough scary day – a tragic day for the victims and their families,” Ulman said. “Our thoughts and prayers go out to them, but I also saw a lot of bravery. ... We saw a lot of tough work, and frankly, a lot of compassion. Stories are coming out about people grabbing kids and huddling them into storage rooms and locking the doors. You hope you never have to go through anything like this, but I always try to find the silver lining in tough challenges.”
He also said he would eat lunch at the food court when the mall reopened.
“We’re a tough community and we’re going to get back to normal very, very quickly,” Ulman said.
I’ll be there, too, this time without a press pass, to do something I always used to do as a kid -- toss a penny into the fountain in the center of the mall and make a wish.
But this time, that wish will be a greater hope that this never happens again.