Recent mall shootings in Las Vegas and Minnesota garnered national attention in the news and are partly to blame for the frantic reaction to firecrackers being set off at the Oaks Mall one week ago today.
On New Year's Eve, a man opened fire at Meadows Mall in Las Vegas. He has since been arrested for attempted murder.
A week later on Jan. 7, two men were shot at the Mall of America in Minneapolis. The victims survived and now media outlets report authorities have made two arrests in connection with the incident.
Twenty four hours later on Jan. 8 several teens set off firecrackers in the Oaks Mall in Gainesville, causing an evacuation of patrons and shutdown of all stores.
And while real shots were not fired, the sound of the firecrackers caused the same reaction—stores slamming their drop down gates shut, people hiding in storage rooms, 911 calls, hundreds running for cover. At least one person reported being injured from falling in the rush to exit the food court where the incident occurred.
Carolina Cortes spoke with Mainstreet Daily News in a telephone interview on Friday and said she was in the food court when the firecrackers were set off. She had seen the news about the shooting at the Las Vegas mall and said that is where her mind went immediately.
Cortes called 911 to report the disturbance and headed toward the Belk store. In the rush, she fell and slammed her knee and ended up crawling in the doorway where Belk employees helped her to the second floor and got her ice to treat the injury.
Later that night she ended up in a CareSpot clinic, where doctors determined she also had torn her rotator cuff.
Cortes said she had just finished eating after 6 p.m. when "everybody heard something" and it seemed like slow motion, people looking at each other to read their reactions.
The pops came a few at a time, which is why she said she confused them for gunshots.
"Three pops, and then another, then three more," Cortes said. "Everybody started running and I tried to walk fast but started to run as if stealing home base and landed on my right knee."
The call to 911 went out at 6:11 p.m. Cortes said she left at about 7:45 p.m. after mall security and Gainesville Police Department officers had checked and cleared the building.
She said she was surprised there were no officers or security visible at that time she exited because she expected to see them going from store to store and talking to possible witnesses.
"Nobody has been apprehended," said GPD spokesperson Graham Glover reported the next day. "The description we have of the suspects (those lighting the firecrackers) are a group of black teenagers."
He also stated that there was "no indication of looting," and that detectives "continue to investigate/talk with store owners/patrons."
As of Friday, Glover said the incident is still under investigation.
Resources used in response to the incident included 15 GPD officers and one Alachua County Sheriff's Office (ACSO) unit. ACSO spokesperson Capt. Kaley Behl reported that the ACSO sent five deputies to the scene.
Parent Tammy Jones is concerned because her sons were at the mall when the incident occurred. She said she reached out for more information from the GPD. But when she called dispatch, she said, "They have no idea what I'm talking about."
"This is a huge deal," she said. "I'm pushing the issue on this because it could've gotten people extremely hurt."
Lindsay Kahn, spokesperson for the Oaks Mall, denounced the incident in a phone interview.
"We took it very seriously," she said. "It's a violation of code of conduct and we have zero tolerance."
Kahn said mall security is working with GPD, which is in charge of the investigation.
"We know it was a frightening experience for everyone," Kahn said.
Anyone with information about the incident can contact GPD non-emergency dispatch at 352-955-1818 or on the virtual front desk app.