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Police: 3 Dead, Including Gunman, After Shooting At Columbia Mall

COLUMBIA, Md. (WJZ) -- Mayhem at the mall. Three people are dead after a shooter opens fire at the Mall in Columbia.

Mike Hellgren has more on the police investigation.

The chief said this is something that was not supposed to happen. The reality is--it did.

At this point, police have not named the shooter publicly, but new information reveals he had a bag with him inside the mall. Police say there were crude devices, possibly explosive devices, that he was trying to make with fireworks.

However, why he did it remains a mystery.

Terrified parents rushed to their children after a lone gunman walked into the busy Mall in Columbia, strapped with large amounts of ammunition, pulled out a shotgun and opened fire.

Police say he killed 21-year-old Brianna Benlolo and 25-year-old Tyler Johnson, who both worked at the Zumiez store there.

"We are deeply saddened by the violence that has occurred this morning within our store in Maryland at The Mall in Columbia. Our hearts go out to the victims and their families.

As you have heard from the Howard County Police the two victims are Zumiez employees. They have been identified as Brianna Benlolo and Tyler Johnson.

We're making arrangements for counseling to be made available to Zumiez employees in the area.

As you can imagine, we are receiving numerous calls and are unable to respond to the flood of questions at this time. We're working with the Howard County police department and all information will come through them. We won't be giving interviews or comments. Thank you for understanding.

The Zumiez team is a tight knit community and all of our hearts go out to Brianna and Tyler's families," Rick Brooks, Zumiez CEO, said in a release.

According to Facebook, Benlolo was a manager from Florida and she hadn't been in Maryland very long. Johnson started working at Zumiez in November.

"We heard about 10 shots. They were pretty loud. We grabbed all of our customers, grabbed all of the children and took them out back and locked the door," said Terry Lawton.

"I thought I heard something fall. It sounded like bricks. All the sudden, I saw people fall, three people that were shot fall, so everybody ducked to the ground. I heard more than 10 shots," said Lauryn Stapleton.

Police do not know the motive and cautioned against speculation amid reports this was a domestic dispute.

"Our hearts, the men and women of the police department's hearts, go out to the families of the people that lost their life today. This shouldn't happen in Columbia Mall. This shouldn't happen anywhere. But unfortunately, that's kind of where we are in our society and things do happen," said Bill McMahon, Howard County Chief of Police.

"Our focus for the last several hours since the shooting has been the treatment of those that were injured, making sure all those people that are huddled inside the mall being sheltered got out safely. We're now going through the investigative process, finding out answers to all those questions you're asking. So again, I'm sensitive to it, I appreciate your desire to know it. I have those questions as well."

Police have maintained a visible presence at the mall, and they will continue to do so throughout the weekend.

Zumiez is on the second floor near the food court. It took five hours for police to inspect every square foot and clear everyone.

The image was chilling, as many came out with their hands up. There were thousands inside the mall on this busy Saturday.

"This took a long time because, if you imagine how many rooms there are in the mall, how many back offices and restrooms and dressing rooms and nooks and crannies in the mall," said Howard County Executive Ken Ulman.

Several pastors held a vigil in the parking lot, trying to make some sense of this senseless tragedy.

"I don't think you can, honestly. We live in an evil world. But it's our faith. It's not what we understand that gets us through, it's our faith that gets us through," one man said.

It's a day that changed lives forever, and one that few here will ever forget.

Five others were injured, including one person who was shot in the foot. Police are interviewing that person. She was standing on the lower level below the Zumiez store.

All five were treated at Howard County General Hospital and released.

The chief operating officer tells WJZ how it responded when it first heard of the shootings.

"We have a detailed emergency operations plan for a variety of situations, one of which would be mass casualties. So, we're prepared to meet that at all times," said Jay Blackman, COO, Howard County General Hospital. "We did not have to call in people in this situation. We were staffed for this situation sufficiently. But if we had to, we could have and would have."

The identities of those patients have not been released.

Police have not released the shooter's name, either, but say they have tentatively identified him.

"We do have three confirmed fatalities and we want to send our thoughts and prayers to the families of those victims," said Howard County Executive Ken Ulman. "This has obviously been a tremendously trying few hours and we ask that people continue to bear with us. This is an active crime scene and will continue to be an active crime scene for quite some time."

"Our hearts and prayers go out to our friends in Howard County and to the families and friends affected by today's tragic shooting at the Columbia Mall. It is times like this that show the importance and dangers of the work of our first responders. Every day they risk their lives for our safety, and for that we are eternally grateful," said Anne Arundel County Executive Laura Neuman.

Governor O'Malley released the following statement on the shooting:

"On behalf of the people of Maryland, I want to express my deepest condolences to the families of the victims and all those affected by this senseless act of violence. Protecting the public's safety is our most solemn obligation."

"We thank all of the first responders who are on the scene. I have been in close contact throughout the day with Col. Marcus Brown of the Maryland State Police -- personnel from the State Police, the Maryland Coordination and Analysis Center, and the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems responded immediately to support Howard County law enforcement officials. I've also spoken with County Executive Ken Ulman to offer any other support he needs, and to commend the quick work of the brave men and women of the Howard County Police and our first responders."

"We are confident it was a single shooter, that there were no other shooters in the mall" McMahon said.

"I was in the food court. There was a very large bang; everyone looked around, like, `What was that?'" said a witness, known only as Beth. "Everyone was stunned and didn't react. [Once we realized] we all ran. I hid under a table. I called 911 right away. I called 911 and the lady that answered seemed like it was something she hadn't heard about yet. While I was on the phone with her there were three more shots, the last two sounded further away, like maybe the gunman was running away and then there was nothing after that. About 10 minutes after that the police were in the mall and yelling for us to get out immediately, but they did not stop us at the door or anything. They didn't ask us to stick around and give our account or anything."

Beth estimates there were close to 100 people at the food court.

"While I was on the phone [with 911], there were three more shots," Beth said. "She told me not to move, to stay under the table."

Once police told her to leave, she said she went home.

"I don't see myself going back to the mall for a while," Beth said.

"We stood there probably for an hour and I could smell smoke. I was concerned there was a fire," said a witness, Marnie, who was there with her son. "We were one of the last ones coming out of the mall."

Marnie said her son was hysterical.

"He said, `Mommy, are we going to get out of here alive?' And you just don't know," she said. "You just don't think it's going to happen to you."

"I was sitting at a table in the food court and I heard at first what sounded like someone throwing a trash can over the balcony, but then I heard it three more times… I hopped the counter at Arby's and helped them escape through the back door," said a witness named Henry. "A woman approached me (in the parking lot) who said she saw the guy with the gun and she described it to me as a shotgun. I heard what sounded like someone say 'Oh no he's got a .32, run!' And then the woman I gave a ride home to said it was a shotgun. I counted about nine shots before I made it out the back of Arby's."

WJZ's Vic Carter spoke to George Miles, an employee at the mall's AT&T store, who said he heard the gunshots and saw at least one body on the ground. He also saw several people covering up another body and trying to assist that person.

"I think the police department summed it up well. You have tactical teams going through the mall to make sure there are no other victims," said security expert Rob Weinhold. "There's an outer perimeter [parking lot] and the inner perimeter [mall] and they need to make sure they don't miss anything."

Weinhold said that there are things the mall should do.

"I think the mall needs to do everything they can to ensure their stakeholders that the mall is safe and say what they'll do to prevent future attacks," Weinhold said. "I think they have a responsibility to get out in front and communicate [with people.]"

It is not known when the mall will reopen but officials say that will not happen Saturday.

"I am deeply saddened to hear of another senseless act of violence committed today at the Mall in Columbia, in my district. While we do not yet have full details of what has happened, my thoughts and prayers are with the families of the victims, and those injured in the shooting. I commend the work of law enforcement officers and first responders currently on the scene for their quick and highly professional work in securing the mall and getting people to safety," said Congressman Elijah Cummings.

"It's horrifying. It's just horrifying," one woman said.

"These are the kinds of things that, unfortunately in our nation, our law enforcement train on and are prepared to do. And they did exactly what they were trained to do," Ulman said.

The following is a statement from Ashley Venable, general manager, The Mall in Columbia:

"Our prayers and support are with the entire Columbia and Howard County communities. We are cooperating with the Howard County Police Department as it conducts its investigation of today's tragedy.  Howard County Police Department is releasing information to us and the community as quickly as possible and directing people to its Twitter account for the most up-to-date information.  We ask you keep all those affected and their families in your prayers tonight."

The American Red Cross is offering counseling and support services to those affected at the scene.

Stay with WJZ for the latest on this developing story.

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