Kohinoor Kahn expected her Boxing Day shift at Walden Galleria Wednesday to be hectic, but she didn’t expect to end the evening locked inside the back room of her store, hiding from what she believed to be gunshots.
She had been trained during police lockdown drills to close the gates at the clothing store where she works if a dangerous situation occurred. But because the gate folds away inside the wall, and because she saw people running past her and assumed her life was in danger, she fled to the back room with other employees and customers.
"Everything goes out the window when you think someone is shooting at you,” she said.
The loud banging sounds turned out to be the sound of a metal sign hitting the floor, but that didn't prevent hundreds of customers from fleeing the Walden Galleria around 7:30 Wednesday night. Several stores closed early after multiple fights erupted in the corridors. Store employees were unclear whether mall management had advised stores to close, and the mall refused to answer questions.
Lindsay DeDario was shopping in Park Avenue Coat Co. when she heard screaming and saw crowds of people running. She assumed she was in an active shooter or terrorist situation when a man burst into the store and warned everyone to "Get down!" and "Get back!" She fled through a fire exit and ducked behind cars outside, winding her way through the parking lot until she got to her own car and drove away.
She feels much safer shopping online and in her Elmwood Avenue neighborhood, and doubts she'll go back to Walden Galleria, she said.
"It made me think about what a big, easy target the mall can be," DeDario said.
The incident comes at a time when enclosed shopping malls have already lost vast amounts of shoppers to online retailers and open-air strip plazas or "power centers". Though Walden Galleria has fared much better than the region's other malls, some shoppers said the incident was enough to make them avoid Walden Galleria after dark. Others said they would never return.
Mary Bamrick was at the Walden Galleria Thursday morning. She usually shops online, but had to return some Christmas gifts. After what happened, she said she would be unlikely to visit the Galleria at night, and possibly wouldn't come back at all.
"I hardly come here anyway. If I can't go here at night, people work during the day, why would I come at all?" Bamrick said.
Employees and shoppers at the popular shopping center echoed the same question: Why didn't Walden Galleria management expect the large crowds of teenagers on Boxing Day? And if they did, why didn’t mall officials take measures to prevent things from getting out of hand?
"Everyone is out of school, everyone has their gift cards to spend, what did they think was going to happen?” said Morgan Smykowski of Darien, who works in a clothing store at the mall.
The mall needs to do a better job with security, especially during school breaks and on days that are likely to draw a lot of teenagers, employees said.
They would like to see the mall beef up its security staffing, communicate better with retailers and expand and enforce its teen chaperone policy.
Mall officials would not answer questions Thursday, so it’s unclear whether staffing was increased Wednesday night, whether the mall anticipated the bigger Boxing Day crowds, or what it might have done to keep the public safe Wednesday night. In a statement, the mall said safety is its "highest priority." But store employees said the mall seemed unprepared to handle any potential problems on such a historically high volume night Wednesday.
Cheektowaga police said seven police officers were working overtime at the mall Wednesday night, paid by mall owner Pyramid Cos. That was in addition to two off-duty police officers who are regularly posted outside the Regal Cinemas, where fights have erupted in the past.
A kiosk employee said Wednesday’s incident got out of hand quickly. One minute, teenagers were loud and yelling, the next minute everyone was fleeing and security guards were overwhelmed trying to chase people down. Like other employees, he said he never received any messages via a mall emergency messaging system.
If it were something more dangerous than rambunctious teenagers, things could have ended up much worse, he said. Like other employees, he felt his safety would depend on waiting for police to arrive and make up for Galleria’s staffing shortfall.
The Walden Galleria has what it calls an MB-18 policy in effect from 4 p.m. to close on Friday and Saturday nights, requiring shoppers under 18 to be accompanied by an escort age 21 or older. That policy was not in effect Wednesday or Thursday, according to the mall security office.
Walden Galleria said in a statement there would be an increased security and police presence at the mall through the holiday season, but that was not highly visible Thursday morning or afternoon other than a mall staff vehicle and Cheektowaga police vehicle alternately parked outside near Forever 21.
Shay Brown of Buffalo thinks it's common sense that large groups of teenagers shouldn't be left unsupervised in the mall. She doesn't understand why the chaperone rule isn't enforced all the time.
"They need restrictions," she said.
Cheektowaga Police said it is in discussions with the Galleria about possibly enforcing the chaperone rule year round, but that enforcing it would be up to the mall's discretion.
One clothing store employee said the best solution would be to open and close the Galleria earlier, rather than having extended hours to capitalize on the holiday rush.
“People are home with their families at that hour,” she said. “The troublemakers come out at night.”