The author, right, with her father waiting out the lockdown at Mall of America.
You see it on the news but you never expect it to happen to you.
I was in Minnesota for the weekend accompanying my father on his 25th college reunion and, as a high school junior, touring the college myself. We decided to visit the iconic Mall of America, because that is what you do when in Minnesota. Little did I know that trip would turn into an active-shooter situation.
The Mall of America is the largest shopping center in the country, with an indoor amusement park, miniature golf course, and over 500 stores. It’s shiny, crowded, loud and overwhelmingly huge. I was excited; this was unlike anything I had ever seen before. My dad and I rode some rides, ate lunch at the Rainforest Cafe, window shopped, and I got a manicure in preparation for the reunion event. Then we decided to hit the amusement park again.
Strapped onto “Shredder’s Mutant Masher,” a huge ride composed of 20 seats facing inward in a spinning circle that swings on a pendulum. A thrill seeker, I was excited when the ride began powering up and started to move.
I didn’t hear any gunfire, but I did hear the alarms go off. Then the loudspeaker blared “seek immediate shelter in the nearest store.”
My first thought; is this real?
The worried look on the ride operator’s face told me this was not a drill and something was really wrong. Instinctively, I pushed against the chest bar and realized I was trapped and a sitting duck.
My eyes darted around, and I saw a mom and her two kids’ scared faces and heard screams from below the platform.
The ride operators for the park are mostly teenagers working their summer job. The guy in charge of my ride looked barely older than me, with his untucked shirt and baggy pants. He stopped the ride, released the restraints, and then began reading the manual of what to do and where to go. This did not instill me a great deal of confidence.
I didn’t wait for the other riders, and ran down the steps of the ride platform following the flow of traffic looking for a place to hide. My dad, who is not a fan of scary rides, was waiting off to the side. I looked to where he was supposed to be but he was gone – trying to fight his way to the ride exit to meet me – and with so many panicked people I couldn’t find him.
We were instructed to shelter in the nearest store, so I ran for the Lego shop only to be ushered away toward the emergency exit. It was loud and chaotic.
My dad went against directions and the stream of people to try and reach me. He grabbed my arm just as I was being pushed toward the stairs of an emergency exit.
We were with a group of over 200 people in a large emergency exit hallway. I saw a girl about my age in tears pacing the hall, praying desperately. “We will be okay because the Lord has our backs,” she said. There was a young boy frantically asking his mom what was happening. Most of the adults were on mobile phones texting and calling loved ones.
As a 15-year-old in the public school system I have had my fair share of active-shooter training, which has somewhat numbed me to fear and panic. However, I realized I have only ever practiced with the idea that the shooting would take place in school; this threw a lot of my knowledge out the window. I texted my mother that I loved her, but didn’t tell her what was going on because there was nothing she could do and there was no point worrying her. Then I sat down to wait it out.
The mall staff didn’t quite know what to do with us. The emergency exit doors couldn’t be locked so they had corralled hundreds of people into one area, making us easy targets. After about 15 minutes in the large hallway, we were moved down further into a maintenance basement.
The basement was dusty, not air-conditioned, and a maze of narrow plywood corridors. My dad and I sat on one of the maintenance carts loaded with power tools. It was clear this was not a part of the mall shoppers were meant to see.
Eventually, workers tracked down a Porta Potty and a couple of cases of water bottles for the growing demand. For the most part, people were calm, I’m thankful no one was argumentative about having to hide.
Watching parents try to explain the situation to their young children was heartbreaking. Trauma bonds people together as a community. I saw people helping to soothe the kids, and I held a toddler while her dad used the restroom. I was happy to help but frustrated that I couldn’t do anything to protect this innocent little girl. She shouldn’t have to spend her day at the mall scared in a maintenance basement.
One family had a service dog with them that they took around letting kids pet him and providing comfort. It was a terrible and tense situation but it was heartwarming to see people being so kind.
Rumors were flying but no one really had the complete story. We spent the two-hour lockdown checking Twitter and watching the news trying to understand.
When the loudspeaker turned on to say that the lockdown would be ending there were cheers and tears of relief. The mall closed for the rest of the day and we were escorted right from the basement to the parking garage. It was quite the day at the Mall of America.
We didn’t get the full story until days later. This shooting was a result of a fight that broke out in the Nike store. One man was carrying an unpermitted pistol and he fired three shots, and no one was injured. The 21-year-old gunman and his accomplice fled the scene. After days of searching and a nationwide warrant the two were arrested in Chicago and await trial in Minnesota.