PARAMUS, N.J. – A crowd of frightened shoppers trying to exit a department store after smoke seeped in from a nearby car fire knocked over a metal support frame, leading to mistaken reports of gunshots and the evacuation of the upscale mall, authorities said Sunday.
The panic at the Garden State Plaza in Paramus began shortly after 8 p.m. Saturday, when a car caught fire in a parking lot.
As smoke from the blaze entered the store, employees told customers to evacuate. The moving crowd knocked over a large metal display stanchion on the store's main level, causing a loud noise that many confused for gunshots.
Another display setup fell moments later as the frightened crowd rushed out of the store. Authorities say several mall patrons suffered minor injuries during the exodus.
The entire mall was evacuated after the reported gunshots.
State police and several other law enforcement agencies combed through the mall to investigate the shooting report but later determined no shots had been fired. The remaining locked-down stores were searched and cleared by midnight, police said.
Authorities are still investigating what caused the car to erupt into flames.
The mall's restaurants and theater were open Sunday. Its shops are regularly closed Sunday.
The Garden State Plaza has been the scene of violence before.
In November, a 20-year-old Teaneck man terrorized shoppers when he fired rifle shots inside the mall, then killed himself. Security video showed Richard Shoop wearing a motorcycle helmet, black clothing, gloves and a backpack and carrying a gun as shoppers and workers scrambled for cover around closing time.
Hundreds of law enforcement officers converged on the 2.2 million-square-foot mall, which was put on lockdown. State police landed a helicopter in the parking lot and SWAT teams with dogs went through the mall and began evacuating people. Shoop's body was discovered in a back corridor deep within a lower level of the mall.
Police said he had ecstasy in his system and left a note indicating he suspected he was under investigation for selling drugs.