The mall Santa was waiting for the next child’s Christmas wish when shots rang out, causing the shopping mall to erupt into chaos.
About to invite a child to hop onto his lap, Brance Wilson instead dove for the floor and kept his head down as he heard shots being fired upstairs in the mall Tuesday afternoon.
“I heard two shots and got out of the chair. I thought a red suit was a pretty good target,” said the 68-year-old Wilson. Families waiting for Santa scattered. More shots followed, and Wilson crept away for better cover.
Wilson was among hundreds of horrified people who ducked or ran for cover when a gunman, dressed in camouflage and a mask and possibly wearing body armor, fired dozens of rounds.
When it was over, three people were dead, including the gunman who police say killed himself.
Another bystander was gravely wounded, but the toll could have been far worse.
Witnesses heard the gunman saying, “I am the shooter,” as he fired rounds from a semi-automatic rifle inside the Clackamas Town Center, a popular suburban mall several miles from downtown Portland.
Some were close enough to the shooter to feel the percussion of his gun.
Police rapid-response teams came into the mall with guns drawn, telling everyone to leave. Shoppers and mall employees who were hiding stayed in touch with loved ones with cellphones and texting.
Police said they had tentatively identified the gunman but would not release his name or give any information on a possible motive.
The shooting started around 3:30 p.m. It was not clear how long it lasted, but some shoppers and employees hid in fear for at least two hours as teams of police checked to see whether there might be another shooter.
Kayla Sprint, 18, was interviewing for a job at a clothing store when she heard shots.
“We heard people running back here screaming, yelling ‘911,’” she told the AP.
Sprint barricaded herself in the store’s back room until the coast was clear.
Jason DeCosta is a manager of a window-tinting company that has a display on the mall’s ground floor. When he arrived to relieve his coworker, he heard shots ring out upstairs.
DeCosta ran up an escalator, past people who had dropped for cover and glass littering the floor.
“I figure if he’s shooting a gun, he’s gonna run out of bullets,” DeCosta said, “and I’m gonna take him.”
DeCosta said when he got to the food court, “I saw a gentleman face down, obviously shot in the head.”
“A lot of blood,” DeCosta said. “You could tell there was nothing you could do for him.”
He said he also saw a woman on the floor who had been shot in the chest.
Austin Patty, 20, who works at Macy’s, said he saw a man in a white mask carrying a rifle and wearing a bulletproof vest. There was a series of rapid-fire shots in short succession as Christmas music played. Patty said he dove for the floor and then ran.
His Macy’s co-worker, Pam Moore, told The Associated Press the gunman was short, with dark hair.
Kira Rowland told KGW-TV that she was shopping at Macy’s with her infant son when the shots started.
“All of a sudden you hear two shots, which sounded like balloons popping,” Rowland told the station. “Everybody got on the ground. I grabbed the baby from the stroller and got on the ground.”
Rowland said she heard people screaming and crying.
“I put the baby back in the stroller and ran,” Rowland said.
Kaelynn Keelin was working two stores down from Macy’s when the gunfire began. She watched windows of another store get shot out. She and her coworkers ran to get customers inside their own store to take shelter.
“If we would have run out, we would have run right into it,” she said.
Shaun Wik, 20, was Christmas shopping with his girlfriend and opened a fortune cookie at the food court. Inside was written: “Live for today. Remember yesterday. Think of tomorrow.”
As he read it, he heard three shots. He heard a man he believes was the gunman shout, “Get down!” but Wik and his girlfriend ran. He heard seven or eight more shots. He didn’t turn around.
“If I had looked back, I might not be standing here,” Wik said. “I might have been one of the ones who got hit.”
Clackamas Town Center is one of the Portland area’s biggest and busiest malls, with 185 stores and a 20-screen movie theater.
Holli Bautista, 28, was shopping at Macy’s for a Christmas dress for her daughter when she heard pops that sounded like firecrackers. “I heard people running and screaming and saying ‘Get out, there’s somebody shooting,'” she told the AP.
She said hundreds of shoppers and mall employees started running, and she and dozens of other people were trying to escape through a department store exit.
Tiffany Turgetto and her husband were leaving Macy’s through the first floor when they heard gunshots coming from the second floor of the mall. They were able to leave quickly through a Barnes & Noble bookstore before the police locked down the mall.
“I had left my phone at home. I was telling people to call 911. Surprisingly, people are around me, no one was calling 911. I think people were in shock,” she said.
By Jonathan J. Cooper and Steven Dubois