It was 9:07 p.m. when radio transmissions from Sweetwater police crackled warnings of a possible shooter at Dolphin Mall, one of the largest and busiest weekend family gathering spots in South Florida.
Almost immediately, the 19 movie screens at the mall’s Cobb Theatres went blank and a voice on a loudspeaker began telling customers there was an emergency and to quickly find an exit. Many of the mall’s 240 stores and restaurants shut their front gates and patrons rushed outside through back doors.
Tweets soon followed, like this one from Valentino at 9:11 p.m, who said he was at the Cheesecake Factory.: “Shooting at Dolphin Mall. Don’t come.” Then this at 9:12 p.m. from another Twitter user: “Heavy police presence in Dolphin Mall. Cops rushing in with long guns.”
During the rush to get outside, gifts, food and personal belongings were abandoned. Some people were knocked down. Remarkably, there were no reports of serious injuries. Outside, blue police lights lit up the parking lots. The roadways surrounding Dolphin Mall, 11401 NW 12th St., were gridlocked as people tried to get away.
Miami-Dade and Sweetwater police swept the mall from one end to the other, looking in stores and restaurants, under counters, in closets.
Tensions escalated for those looking to social media to find out what was happening, when a 2-year-old photo of a man holding a shotgun inside the mall began circulating through the Twitterverse. The photo was taken during an active-shooter training session by Sweetwater police at Dolphin Mall.
In the days after the Saturday night scare, police have yet to find a single spent shell casing. They haven’t found a person who saw anyone with a weapon. They still haven’t nailed down what set off the panic. They’re looking at everything — from the possible pulling of an alarm to the loud sound of garbage bins being toppled.
“Nobody saw anything,” said Miami-Dade police Lt. Juan Villalba.
Mall representatives aren’t speaking. They’re not saying if the Allied Universal security officers who patrol the mall ordered its evacuation. Sweetwater cops generally work on- and off-duty mostly on the mall’s perimeter, while private security guards work inside.
“Sweetwater police did not order the evacuation of Dolphin Mall,” said Sweetwater Police Maj. Aquiles Carmona.
No matter, mall security experts and police say there really wasn’t an alternative to quickly trying to evacuate the masses and mobilizing law enforcement.
The threat, they say, is real. Pictures of people fleeing an Ariana Grande concert in England after a bombing in the spring and running from a marketplace near London Bridge after a terror attack this summer remain fresh in people’s minds.
And it’s happened in South Florida: In April, hundreds fled Merrick Park in Coral Gables on a weekend when personal trainer Abeku Wilson, 33, shot and killed two co-workers at the Equinox fitness club.
“People, at the slightest sound, they’re moving. People don’t have the correct info, so they’re passing along what they believe,” said Chris McGoey, a Los Angeles-based mall security expert. “What if it was real? It would be exactly what you'd want them to do. You have to treat it as real — and that's a problem.”
Saturday night’s chaos at Dolphin Mall began right around 9 p.m., when its movie theaters and 240 restaurants and stores are at their fullest. Carmona said people began flooding out of the mall and told security guards there was a shooter inside.
Mall security quickly notified off-duty Sweetwater cops who were working there. At 9:07 p.m. police radios blared about a possible active shooter scenario. Sweetwater called Miami-Dade police within a few minutes, which brought in a flood of officers and its SWAT team.
Twitter lit up almost immediately — and for the most part, it wasn’t much help.
If you searched on Twitter for Dolphin Mall after 10:43 p.m. Saturday — while police were still searching for a shooter and as family and friends sought information — the top trending photo was of a heavy-set bald man wearing a black T-shirt and blue jeans. He was standing outside of the movie cinema complex at the mall and leaning against a pillar. He was also holding a long rifle high up in the air, fire and smoke coming out the end of it.
The picture was 2 years old. Yes, it was taken inside Dolphin Mall, but during an active shooter training session for Sweetwater cops. The trending picture was posted by Twitter user @cabonchris13. Above the picture, he wrote: “This one of the shooter at Dolphin Mall,” followed by two emojis and SMH, which stands for shaking my head.
But finding where the picture originated, at least so far, has been fruitless. Reached by direct message on Twitter, @cabonchris13 said he found the picture on one of his feeds and simply reposted it.
In the end, police spent more than two hours sweeping the mall. Though there wasn’t an official all-clear given until 2 a.m., police had much earlier cautioned that there likely was no shooter. Police are expected to meet with mall representatives later this week, then issue a report on what they believe happened.
Andrea Piccardo said she was in the theater watching Atomic Blonde when at about 9:10 p.m. the screen went blank and an announcement came on over the loudspeakers saying there was an emergency and everyone needed to leave the theater.
Almost immediately, she said, people were stricken with fear. The crowd surged toward the exit sign near the screen. People ran. Some abandoned baby strollers. Others, she said, fell down stairs that had become slickened by rain.
“I just sort of figured it might be a shooter,” Piccardo said. “If people are running that fast there must be someone right behind us.”
Meanwhile, Golden Beach Police Chief Rudy Herbello had just ordered chicken and filet mignon at the Kobe House Japanese Steak and Seafood Restaurant when he heard a commotion and looked up. He was with his daughter.
As people dove under tables and bolted for the exits, Herbello headed to the restaurant’s front door, told the manager to lock it and asked him how to get to the kitchen. Outside the door, Herbello said, it was total chaos as people ran into and through each other searching for a way to get outside.
When Herbello grabbed his daughter and headed for the exit in the kitchen, others followed, the chief said. He heard nothing over the loudspeaker and had no idea what was going on until he reached a Sweetwater cop outside the mall and was told police were looking for a possible active shooter.
“People were running. It was total chaos. People were hiding under tables,” said the Golden Beach chief. “It was like a stampede.”
McGoey, the security expert, said as long as people don’t act responsibly on social media and in the media in general, he expects to see more panic-filled situations at large gathering spots similar to what happened last weekend at Dolphin Mall.
“It’s the kind of hysteria that’s happening here, now. It’s a new phenomena that’s been happening in Europe,” he said. “The playbook is to lock down the doors and evacuate the mall. You really don’t have 45 minutes to search for a shooter, first.”
Miami Herald staff writer Lance Dixon contributed to this report.