Terrorism & Active Shooter

Terror at Crabtree Valley Mall

August 13, 2016, started out as a girls’ shopping trip comprised of my mom, sister, niece and myself. We also included my nephew to celebrate my sister’s birthday.

Work had been stressful lately for the adults and we were determined to have a stress-free day enjoying each other’s company. Little did we know, this would be the day we would experience what it feels like to be caught up in the pandemonium of terrorism up close and personal.

After a successful morning shopping at Crabtree Valley Mall in Raleigh, N.C., and a leisurely lunch in the mall’s food court, we were preparing to leave. My sister stepped into a shoe store near the food court to look at little girls’ shoes, while my nephew went to refill his drink before we left the mall.

I went to round up my nephew while Mom waited near the shoe store, with plans for us to all meet them there and head out.

I headed through the large, center opening of the food court, my eyes finding my nephew at the Chick Fil-A counter. That’s when I heard it. It sounded like a train was moving through the food court. I could hear momentum build around me and felt the floor begin to shake.

My thoughts were confused, trying to process what I was hearing. Then I saw people emerge from around the corner: scores of people, running through the food court, screaming, waving their hands in the air.

It was a stampede of countless people, and it was about to swallow up my nephew. I watched the wave of people as it reached him. His drink long forgotten, he had to run or be trampled. So he ran.

From where I stood in the middle of the food court, the mob was about to overtake me as well and I knew I also had to run or be run over.

Terror incident at Crabtree Valley Mall

In this image made from a video provided by Lauren Baker, people rush to one of the exits of Crabtree Valley Mall in Raleigh, N.C. Saturday, Aug. 13, 2016. Reports of gunshots inside the busy North Carolina mall caused chaos Saturday afternoon as shoppers ran screaming for the doors or sheltered in stores while dozens of officers arrived on the scene, witnesses said. (Lauren Baker via AP)

My brain was on rapid-fire. Thoughts were coming quick and fragmented. “This is really happening.”

“I’m trying to reach my nephew, but I’m leaving three others behind. How can I get to the others?”

With the mob pushing and shoving, I knew it would be impossible to turn around and try to get to my other family members. I felt fear seize my body as I wondered how we would be reunited and if we would all be safe when it was over.

And that’s when I heard the gunshots ring out behind me—clear, loud and unmistakable.

I thought, “I could be shot in the back as I’m running to reach my nephew.” As I ran, I tried to keep my eyes on my nephew’s back where he was running farther up in the mob.

People’s belongings—bags, cellphones—were being discarded and tossed aside, sacrificed for the primal urge to flee to safety, no matter who or what got in the way. Food and drinks were spilling everywhere, making the floor impossibly slippery.

I was being pushed, pulled and shoved. Someone ripped my dress and I fell to my knees. In that moment on the floor, I saw a long-handled sweeper basket cast aside in front of me, the kind mall employees use to collect trash as they sweep the floors. My face was nearly in the sweeper basket.

As I scrambled to get up, my thoughts were hyper focused: “Stay on your feet or you’re going to be trampled. Get to my nephew. Then we go back for the others.” I had formulated the only plan I possibly could: Get my nephew. Go back for the others.

He was wearing a purple plaid shirt. Too far ahead for me to reach. Every time I yelled his name, it was swallowed up by the deafening noise of this mob yelling and pushing for the door.

“Stay on your feet,” I kept telling myself. “Please, God.” It was as much of a prayer as I could muster in those moments, but I knew it was enough. “Please, God!”

I finally passed through the exit doors, eyes on my nephew’s purple plaid shirt. I watched him cross over a bridge connecting the mall to the parking deck. I charged along the bridge as best I could in the crowd. I saw him turn left and take refuge in a concrete alcove that housed a Pepsi machine. I followed him there and grabbed his arm.

Terror incident at Crabtree Valley Mall

Antonio Richardson makes a call from the parking deck of Crabtree Valley Mall on Saturday, Aug. 13, 2016. Richardson says he was in the mall when two men began fighting. Raleigh’s police chief says investigators are still trying to determine whether there was a shooting at a Raleigh mall where witnesses reported hearing gunfire. (AP Photo/Allen G. Breed)

Though very much a teenager, he already tops six feet tall. We were both breathing hard, chests visibly rising and falling. Our conversation was choppy and functional.
“What happened?”
“I don’t know.”
“Where are they?”
“They went into Stride-Rite.”
Then, we both reached for our cellphones. Near us, a young boy, maybe seven or eight years old, had also taken refuge behind the Pepsi machine. He was crying loudly, “I lost my Mom. I can’t find my Mom.”

My heart ached for him in that moment, but not enough to shift my focus away from finding my own family.

As my nephew and I stampeded for the exit door, another scene was playing out in front of Stride-Rite.

Back inside

The stampeding mob encircled the food court from both sides, moving through two large, wide corridors that led to the restaurants. Before the chaos began, my mom and six-year-old niece were looking at the motorized animals out in the corridor that children can ride for a quarter, while my sister looked at little girls’ shoes.

Then the stampede overtook my mom. Big, unknown hands pushed her down until she was face-first on the ground. Not knowing what was happening around her, but clearly recognizing danger, she pulled my niece down and they hid under a table.

Others in the shoe store hid inside. Not my sister. Her daughter and mom were out in the open corridor and she went to find them. She found them sprawled under a table, where they huddled when they heard gunshots ring out.

The mob passed by and, suddenly, they found themselves alone in this large, open space. Being exposed felt even more dangerous than the stampeding crowd. Two men approached them, running up and saying something. For all they knew, these men might have been the shooters, and there they were, one flimsy little table covering parts of their heads and not much else. And the food court was basically abandoned.

One of the men said something about helping my mom get up and then, suddenly, he had her in a bear hug and she was up, back on her feet. The men went on their way.

That was the first kindness of strangers we experienced.

Meanwhile, behind the Pepsi machine, my nephew and I were making phone calls and he finally was able to reach his mom. She said they weren’t hurt and were heading for the exit. I remember feeling a flood of relief that they were together and were heading out.

In the relief of that moment, I turned to the young boy crying for his mother. “Do you know your phone number?” I asked him. “I can make a call for you.”

He rattled off a couple of numbers as I dialed, but, as I did, he thought he spotted his aunt in the crowd and ran off in that direction. My nephew and I left the Pepsi machine and raced back across the bridge to the entrance.

And there they were: Mom, barefoot from losing her shoes in the melee, my sister and niece. Mom’s breathing was labored, her mouth gaped open and her chest heaved.

The thought flashed through my mind, “If we’re going to have a patient, it will be her.”

My sister had my mother by the arm and was guiding her. I took her other arm and began repeating over and over, “Everyone is OK. No one is hurt.”

We led them back to our original place of safety, the Pepsi machine area, where we all took refuge.

As minutes passed, we watched police arrive and begin blocking the mall entrances, their long guns in tow as they guarded the doors.

We didn’t know whether to move from our place in the parking deck, where now a large crowd of shoppers and mall employees had gathered. And, if we did move, where was it safe to go?

Eventually, police moved the crowds farther back into the parking deck, away from the entrance doors.

Terror incident at Crabtree Valley Mall

In this image made from a video provided by Lauren Baker, people rush to one of the exits of Crabtree Valley Mall in Raleigh, N.C. Saturday, Aug. 13, 2016. Reports of gunshots inside the busy North Carolina mall caused chaos Saturday afternoon as shoppers ran screaming for the doors or sheltered in stores while dozens of officers arrived on the scene, witnesses said. (Lauren Baker via AP)

No one knew exactly what had happened. We heard reports of a gang hit. We heard a shooter was still on the loose inside. No one really knew.

One thing was certain: We were on the back side of this very large mall and our car was on the opposite side. There was no way we could get to it.

Roads leading in to the mall were blocked to traffic for miles around. Other emergency vehicles had arrived and helicopters circled overhead.

In typical North Carolina fashion, this August day was sweltering, with a heat index above 100 degrees. The five of us, with my mom barefoot, eventually made our way out the back side of the parking deck and across a street behind the mall.

Over the next several hours, we traded off shoes to give Mom’s feet a break and got a ride from a stranger, a very nice lady who drove us several blocks to get beyond the barricaded roads where a work colleague picked us up.

My work colleague and his wife live close to the mall, but had been circling the area in a 20-mile route, trying to find a way in to pick us up. When we finally got to them, they drove us several miles further on to a place where other family members picked us up and we eventually made it home.

So what really happened inside the mall that day?

As of right now, no one is certain what happened to trigger the scare of our lives. Crabtree Valley Mall is more than 1.3 million square feet of enclosed space and more than 220 stores. Every inch of it had to be searched and cleared.

Some 10,000 people had to be systematically evacuated; except for the ones in the food court, including us, who had already stampeded their way out long before an investigation began.

According to Raleigh police reports, no one was shot, no one has been arrested and there are no suspects. Now, they aren’t even sure it was a shooting. No shell casings or entry points have been found. They called in the FBI to help.

But we heard gun shots. And we know what gun shots sound like.

Was this an active shooter? Was it an act of terrorism? Could it be the shooter had a revolver, slipped it in their pocket, then ran out along with the rest of the mob that stampeded through the food court?

We may never know for sure, but a few things are certain: Terrorism is real and highly effective. Reports of mall shootings, mall stabbings, bombs in dumpsters and pressure-cooker bombs are becoming eerily too common.

Regardless of what this really was, we were terrified and scared for our lives. A stampeding mob is, on its own, a very real danger.

I was terrified I wouldn’t be able to reunite my family, but I’m convinced that choosing to follow my nephew instead of turning back to head for the others was the right decision. I couldn’t have gotten back to them, and I was able to keep my nephew safe and with me.

Ultimately, EMS crews transported eight people to local hospitals for injuries sustained in the stampede.

Inciting terror in the public causes a herd mentality to take over. Mob rule becomes the prevailing force. Reactions are visceral. People fight for their own survival. Many will be ruthless in this fight.

Despite all the panic inside the mall, it was comforting to know that, after the initial heat of the moment passed, the kindness of strangers could still be found.

  • It was found in the man who lifted my mom to her feet so she could get out the door. Thank you!
  • It was found in the crowd gathered around a pregnant lady in distress, offering water, calling 9-1-1. Thank you!
  • It was found in the lady who went to get her car and drove us out of there. Thank you!
  • It was found in my work colleague, who circled the mall for 20 miles trying to get to us. Thank you!
  • And it is always found in the selfless courage of first responders who run in to an emergency, when everyone else is running out. You renew our faith in humankind. Thank you.

 

 

Kendra Gerlach is the Director of the Office of Communications with the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, very familiar with law enforcement, fire and EMS operations. She is a 22-year communications professional with 17 years of health care experience.