COLUMBIA, S.C. – No one was injured Saturday night as police said a fistfight turned into a shooting at a Columbia mall Saturday as several presidential campaigns partied about a dozen miles away.
The two men who fired the shots and a third man who was fighting with them were not immediately arrested as dozens of police officers searched woods as others went from store to store at the Columbiana Mall letting scared shoppers know it was safe to leave, Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook said.
The incident began as a fight between two people about 7 p.m. in front of the Kay's Jewelers near the food court, Holbrook said.
A third man joined in and "at least two people pulled guns and fired in the air," Holbrook said.
The men ran out of the mall and have not been found. Several teams of heavily armed officers could be seen searching around the mall and the dozens of stores and restaurants nearby. Two hours after the shooting, police officers were still going into businesses and telling scared shoppers behind locked doors it was safe to leave.
"When we clear the mall and the other areas, we think it will shed light on what occurred," Holbrook said.
Shoppers described massive panic after the shots rang out.
"They were all running and leaving stuff behind, like there were snakes behind them," said Stacey Haltiwanger, owner of the Sassy and Classy boutique in the mall.
Pamela Paras was at the mall with her two daughters, ages 7 and 12, in the Dazzle Up clothing store about seven doors down from the shooting. She said it first sounded like someone dropped a heavy tray in the food court. Then people began running outside and an employee rushed to drop the security gate and turn off the lights.
Shoppers and their children hid under clothing racks in the dark for more than 30 minutes before officers came in and hustled them all out.
"There were several small children crying. As an adult, you really couldn't lose it. But we were all thinking about making sure we were in front of the children if a gunman came in," Paras said.
Several dozen people walked around outside the mall after the shooting because they left purses and keys inside and police weren't letting anyone back in. Authorities set up a place in a Toys R Us parking lot next door for people who got separated to reunite.
Dozens of police cars with lights flashing could be seen on the road around the mall, and traffic in the area was backed up for more than a mile. The mall has about 80 stores and is about 12 miles outside the capital's downtown, where three of the six remaining Republican presidential candidates were holding primary watch parties Saturday night.
Meg Kinnard contributed to this report from Columbia.