PARAMUS — A “physical altercation” at the Garden State Plaza food court Saturday afternoon led to dozens of police units descending upon the mall as patrons were sent scrambling.
Police Chief Ken Ehrenberg dismissed rumors of a shooting at the mall and said the Plaza reopened by about 4:45 p.m. Police will remain on the scene through the night.
“Someone must have yelled ‘gun’ and it spread like wildfire,” Ehrenberg said.
“Once that genie has been taken out of the bottle,” he continued, “it’s hard to put it back in.”
The sound of a broken bottle may have been mistaken for gunshots, the chief said. No arrests have been made.
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Police blocked all major highway entrances to the mall causing traffic to back up on routes 4 and 17. Police directed a mass of cars leaving the mall onto highways and local roads.
No formal evacuations were made by police, Ehrenberg said, but plenty of people chose “self-evacuation” as the scene unfolded.
Inside the mall
Shoppers took to social media to describe how they were stuck in different parts of the mall and left with questions on what caused the panic.
Elizabeth Graner went to the mall with her fiancé’s daughter to go prom dress shopping Saturday afternoon at Nordstrom when the commotion started.
“We heard shouting and saw people running on the first floor, so we ducked into one of the small shops and huddled in the corner with other people,” Graner said. “The very nice young men who were working at the swatch store let us out after about 15 minutes.”
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Graner commended the staff at the mall for acting quickly and professionally.
Carley Campbell, 21, was at Forever 21 and about to check out when someone in Spanish said something that translated to be about gunshots, she said. With her partner, she then went back to the changing area to hide.
“The lights went out and we were there for about 15 to 20 minutes and we were told to evacuate,” Campbell said. “… We were scared about what would happen next. We heard doors slam.”
Though the mall reopened, dozens of stores stayed closed for the night. A scene formed at the Apple store with security officers explaining to people who knew nothing of the earlier disturbance why the store was closed.
Mahmood Siyam recalled how a wave of people continued to grow larger trying to flee the mall. It started small enough that Siyam thought it was children playing some sort of game, until the numbers swelled too large to ignore.
“We were stopped in our tracks and were just watching the scene unfold,” Siyam said. “The crowd gets bigger and bigger and they’re all running toward us, toward the parking lot. This girl pushes me and goes, ‘People are running you need to run too,” and I was like, ‘Why I don’t understand.'”
Mall safety in New Jersey
The incident comes just weeks after a shooting at American Dream left a man injured and caused havoc at the Bergen County mall.
It’s not the first act of violence at the Paramus mall, located at the heart of the region’s shopping district.
Last year, Paramus police arrested a 17-year-old boy from Lodi, who they say carried a loaded pistol in a fanny pack at Garden State Plaza.
In 2013, a gunman, dressed head to toe in black and wearing a black helmet, fired shots in the mall just before closing time.
In a recent interview, Dan Kennedy, senior vice president of U.S. security operations at Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield, the owners of Garden State Plaza, said he stays up at night thinking of worst-case scenarios that could happen at their 25 properties in the United States. Garden State Plaza has one of the highest security budgets, he said.
“Our goal is for people who visit our properties to see visible security and feel a sense of safety,” he said. “They may not know all the behind work, drills and training, but rest assured all of that is in place.”
Check back for more on this developing story.
Scott Fallon has covered the COVID-19 pandemic since its onset in March 2020. To get unlimited access to the latest news about the pandemic’s impact on New Jersey, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
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George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism