By Gabriele Roy and Olivia Bowden, The Canadian Press
TORONTO — Panic erupted at a sprawling Toronto mall on Thursday afternoon after gunshots fired following an altercation between two groups sent terrified shoppers running for cover.
No one was injured in the incident that took place in the southeast corner of the bustling Yorkdale Shopping Centre just before 3 p.m., and investigators said they were searching for multiple suspects.
“There was an altercation between two groups of men, at some point one of the individuals from one of the groups discharged a firearm at least twice,” said Supt. Rob Johnson. “Thankfully no one was hit in this.”
Police said the suspects fled the mall on foot, noting that the two groups were made up of at least three men each. Police said two of the suspects being sought were men in their 20s and one was believed to have a black handgun.
The incident was the latest in a string of high-profile shootings in the city this year. In July two people were killed in a rampage in Toronto’s Greektown, a month earlier two young girls were wounded in a shooting at a playground, and days later a woman on her way home from a funeral died in a drive by-shooting police called indicative of a “street gang subculture.”
Thursday’s mall shooting saw shoppers and store employees scrambling to get to safety once shots rang out.
“We thought something fell, and then we heard it again a second time,” said Donald Mudavanhu, who had been at the mall to buy prescription sunglasses. “Everyone just started running, there was a huge crowd of people.”
The 43-year-old said he rushed into a nearby Holt Renfrew store with dozens of others and went up to the second floor in search of a secure space.
“We really couldn’t find a safe place to hide,” he said. “Those stores are really wide open so we couldn’t find a corner where we could go.”
Mudavanhu and others then squeezed into a staff hallway at the back of the store. Store staff eventually opened the door to the hallway and people began leaving, he said, adding that he was still processing what happened.
“It is a scary feeling, because the thing is we didn’t know where the shots were coming from,” he said. “The fear is there, my heart is beating as I repeat the story.”
Alex Banks said he was also still grappling with the incident.
“I saw people running everywhere trying to exit the building,” he said, explaining that he had been sitting on a mall bench when the building alarm went off. “My heart started to pound so, so, so fast.”
For some mall employees, the incident required them to spring into action.
Michelle, who would only give her first name because employees were told not to speak to reporters, said she first thought a balloon had burst. She said she realized something was amiss when a second shot rang out.
“I was so shocked,” she said.
She called her manager who told her to rush customers into a storage room, she said, adding that she and a co-worker then turned off the store lights and locked the door. A little later, when she saw many people running through the mall, she said she told the customers to leave the store right away.
Police said two people sustained minor injuries while exiting the mall. By Thursday evening, officers were interviewing witnesses, reviewing surveillance video and looking for evidence.
Toronto’s mayor said he was relieved no one was injured in the mall shooting.
“Whether it is Yorkdale Mall or anywhere else in Toronto, people should not have to worry about gun violence breaking out,” John Tory said in a statement. “There are too many guns available to criminals in the city and I am determined to end that with the help of our police and our government partners.”
The mall issued a statement saying it was working with police and expected to open on Friday morning. The shopping centre recently underwent an expansion and features multiple luxury brands and restaurants.