Panic and Chaos Amid Active-Shooter Drill at Florida Mall

Dozens of people leaving a showing of "The Lion King" were shocked when they heard gunshots. Witnesses said they ran for cover, while others called 911 or loved ones and parents clutched screaming children.

by Dana Cassidy, Kristina Webb, The Palm Beach Post, Fla. / August 5, 2019
An active-shooter drill caused panic for some patrons Sunday evening at the Mall of Wellington Green. TNS

(TNS) — An active-gunman drill at the Mall of Wellington Green on Sunday evening left some mall patrons frightened and running for cover, then confused about its timing and how real it appeared.

Dozens of people leaving a 5:20 p.m. showing of "The Lion King" at the CMX movie theater were shocked when they heard gunshots. Witnesses told The Palm Beach Post they ran for cover, while others called 911 or loved ones and terrified parents clutched screaming children.

The mall closes at 6 p.m. Sundays, but the movie theater and some restaurants stay open later.

Calls and in-person requests for comment from managers of the mall and the movie theater were not immediately returned Monday.

The drill involved the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office and other police agencies. It was scheduled from 6 to 11 p.m., records show, and it came hours after mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, took 29 lives. It also fell on the Sunday of the state's sales-tax holiday weekend, when many families shop for back-to-school items.

Authorities had scheduled the drill two months in advance, working closely with the mall's managers, PBSO spokeswoman Teri Barbera said.

"It's not anything new for us," Barbers said. "We do it annually."

PBSO notified Wellington officials of the drill twice: Once when it was scheduled and again Friday afternoon, assistant village manager Jim Barnes said.

"We are having our annual Active Shooter Training at the mall this Sunday from 6 p.m. to about 11 p.m.," PBSO Lt. Eli Shaivitz wrote in an email to Barnes, village manager Paul Schofield, executive assistant Laura Aldrich and emergency-management director Nicole Coates.

"We have two large signs to tell the public it's a training exercise but FYI in case you get any calls."

It was unclear if the village council was reminded of the drill Friday. Mayor Anne Gerwig said she did not recall seeing anything come across her desk.

Gerwig was at Ford's Garage on the mall's first level at about 7:30 p.m. Sunday while the drill was happening.

"It was a little alarming to people because they didn't know it was going on," she said. The restaurant's staff notified diners of the drill, she said.

Although she wishes active-shooter drills weren't necessary, Gerwig said she understands the need. "This is just preparing us," she said.

She hearkened back to the shootout between PBSO deputies and three fugitives that happened outside the mall on Christmas Eve, where K-9 deputy Cigo was killed.

"There's not place in America that this couldn't happen," she said.

PBSO also coordinates an annual interagency drill that takes over the mall area for a Sunday morning each year. During those drills, electronic message signs are placed along nearby roads to notify passersby of the law-enforcement activity. In the past, the council has been notified of those drills via a memo.

Some mall patrons were unclear on the drill, with some taking to social media to express dismay at what they called at lack of communication.

In a Facebook post that has gone viral, West Palm Beach resident Philip Ventresca described his experience Sunday night leaving "The Lion King" with his mother and sister and walking into an active-shooter drill.

Ventresca and his sister were using the restrooms when they heard the first shots. High school-age children ran into the bathroom, he said, but he thought the sound had been caused by the youths "goofing around." Then he heard a shriek, and a mother ran into the bathroom and threw her child into one of the stalls.

Worried for his family, Ventresca ran into the movie theater's lobby.

"It was chaos," he said. "People were screaming, children were crying.'

The partition between the movie theater and the mall was closed, but through it Ventresca said he could see people on the ground and others carrying guns. He stepped to the side and turned to see his sister with tears in her eyes and his mother sobbing.

"It was totally crazy," he said.

Finally he heard someone say, "It's a drill. It's a drill." As he began to calm down, he noticed the "computer-paper signs" on the movie theater's gate saying the shooting was a drill.

That's when he got angry.

"I was furious," he said. "All these parents were hysterical."

He said he understands the need for a drill, but wishes the movie theater and mall had done more to let people know.

"I don't think PBSO is in the wrong," he said. "They're just doing their job prepping for that."

Friends have reached out to him saying it could have been worse. "They said, 'We all carry. What if we were there and went out and started shooting?'" he said.

Others on social media praised PBSO for arranging the drill. They agreed it was planned long in advance and that the mall, not the sheriff, was at fault for the confusion.

"Be thankful for this type of training," one commenter wrote. "So when it happens here and your loved ones are trapped in the chaos, Law Enforcement officers can protect them and remove them safely."

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