Fear of mass shootings, 'herd response' blamed for Crabtree panic
Posted August 15, 2016 3:19 p.m. EDT
Updated August 15, 2016 5:53 p.m. EDT
Raleigh, N.C. — The sound of gunfire inside Crabtree Valley Mall on Saturday sparked panic and sent everyone running out of the Raleigh shopping mall.
Police never found a gunman, any wounded victims or even shell casings after hours of searching, however, and despite widespread reports that investigators removed a piece of ceiling with holes in it, authorities say it's unlikely there ever was a shooting.
Still, psychologist Don Azevedo said the reaction of the crowd was understandable, given the number of mass shootings around the country in recent months and years.
"In the back of our minds, we're thinking the world is much more dangerous. So, any sound can be interpreted as this is a gunshot," Azevedo said Monday.
Police are still trying to determine what set off pandemonium inside the Crabtree Valley food court and have been examining video from dozens of security cameras inside the mall.
Carolynn Cerul was in the food court at the time and said she never heard anything that sounded like a gunshot or saw anything that made her feel unsafe, but she joined in the mass exodus.
"I heard all of the chairs in the food court move all at once, and everybody seemed to stampede and bolt in all directions," said Cerul, who works at Benefit, an eyebrow waxing and sculpting salon in the mall. "The crowd seemed to be running from something or from someone. Not knowing exactly what it was that we were running from, they were running from something. So, it sparked a fear in you – just follow suit."
In the chaos, 21 people were injured, including 12 who had to be taken to local hospitals, according to Wake County EMS officials.
"There was actually a woman who fell right in front of me, and I had to hurdle myself over her," Cerul said. "I wasn't able to stop, try to help her up or even go back because there were so many people running around me and behind me. It was chaos."
Azevedo said the idea of gunfire nearby can spread quickly and create a herd response.
"There was the communication, 'There's a gun somewhere.' That went much further than the actual gunshot," he said. "They thought, 'If other people are running, I'm going to run with them.' That's part of the mentality of herd response."
People should be prepared to encounter danger in a public space and have a plan for responding, he said.
"If you've got a plan and you know what to do, all of this becomes much less frightening," he said.
Crabtree Valley returned to normal operations on Sunday, and by Monday, a steady flow of shoppers had returned to the mall and the food court.
"I'm really happy it wasn't the worst-case scenario. I do feel silly after the fact for panicking," Cerul said. "I hope that it was just a prank or a misunderstanding that sparked mass panic."