Nine Florida Mall shoppers were injured in a frantic flee from the building after an alarm and popping sounds caused panic at the fear of an active shooter, officials said Thursday.
About 3:20 p.m., mall patrons began reporting on social media that an alleged shooting had occurred in the food court after hearing sharp popping sounds and a fire alarm. The unsettling sounds sent fearful patrons running from the mall.
Orange County Fire Medical and Orange County Sheriff’s deputies were dispatched to the scene, but there was no gunman, OCSO spokeswoman Deputy Rose Silva said.
Instead, the scare was caused by an industry-standard test as part of the inspection for the grand opening of former ‘NSync singer Joey Fatone’s new restaurant, Silva said. An announcement was made over the mall’s public announcement system prior to the test preparing customers for the noise.
“The test consisted of six large balloons popping consecutively, followed by a fire alarm,” Silva said. “This caused people to go into panic mode and run.”
First responders treated at least 10 patients at the mall with injuries from the frantic evacuation, OCFR spokeswoman Ngoc Huynh said. Four of the patients were taken by ambulance to area hospitals.
Huynh said the injuries consisted of “mostly falls, scrapes and twisted knees.”
Francisco Levane was greeting people at the Apple Store when he saw a crowd of people running to the exits.
The 21-year-old didn’t know what was happening as he saw the people panicking to get out of the mall. His first thought was that it was a shooting.
“I lost two friends at Pulse, so of course that was my first thought,” he said.
Levane said he ran to the farthest corner of the parking lot, something he learned last week when the store held active shooter training. He called his mother while running and told her he loved her.
“I left her a voicemail that there was someone shooting in the mall and that I was OK,” he said.
He said he going home for the day because the whole incident left him shook up.
Natalie Tapia, 20, was shopping with her husband and newborn when she saw everyone start running.
“All I heard was the word ‘gun’ and knew I had to get out of there,” she said. “My husband grabbed our baby out of the stroller and we just ran.”
Amid the chaos, people left behind shoes, purses and phones. Others were separated from loved ones as they rushed to get out of the building, which led to a second round of panic, she said.
“They just kept telling us to hurry and get out quickly,” she said of workers who guided them outside. “It was really scary.”
She said she thinks after the tragedy at Pulse nightclub, people who are inside “big targets” like the Florida Mall are on edge about things like a possible shooting.
The mall remained open during the panic and was “operating as usual,” said Les Morris, spokesman for Simon Property Group, which owns the Florida Mall.
This is the second area mall-shooting false alarm since the June 12 Pulse massacre rocked the community. A similar scare occurred at Orlando Premium Outlets on June 18 when a chair fell. Patrons there thought the sound was gunshots and panicked.
Two people were killed in a shooting at the Florida Mall in the JC Penney parking lot in February.
David Harris contributed to this report.