LAPD officers use a robot at the Beverly Center after the evacuation. (Christina House, For the…)
The evacuation announcement came over the loudspeaker at the Beverly Center in the early afternoon -- a muffled voice telling shoppers that this was not a drill, that everyone needed to leave the mall immediately.
Like many others at the enormous shopping complex in West L.A., Christina Taylor couldn't make out exactly what the official said as she and her mother browsed at Bloomingdale's on Sunday. But they immediately noticed panicked store employees locking up registers and running toward the exits.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, March 26, 2013 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Beverly Center evacuation: An article in the March 25 LATExtra section about a bomb scare at the Beverly Center mall said Robert Hernandez, a USC professor, had been shopping there with his wife and 4-year-old daughter. Hernandez was shopping with his wife and 4-year-old son.
With the recent shooting in Newtown, Conn., still fresh in their minds, Taylor's mother, Jenny, grabbed her daughter, and the two women rushed toward the escalators, allowing families with young children to pass in front of them as the crowd headed out of the building.
"No one knew what was going on -- someone said it was a fire, someone said it was a person with a gun," said Christina, a 17-year-old from Florida who had made the mall the first stop of vacation.
As hundreds of shoppers streamed down the escalators into the street outside, "it was chaotic, crazy," the high school junior said. "We love the Beverly Center, but it was terrifying."
The cause, it turned out, was a suspicious package reported by a Beverly Center patron. The man, who had parked his car on the first level, told police that when he returned to the garage the car was gone. He told authorities he found the car near where he'd parked it and said his briefcase had been moved to a different part of the vehicle.
Los Angeles Police Capt. Lillian Carranza said the man told police he was involved in "a personal feud" and feared for his safety. "That's what raised the level of concern," she said.
Carranza said LAPD conferred with mall security, and within 10 minutes authorities decided to evacuate the 1,300 people in the mall, which covers two city blocks.
LAPD dispatched the bomb squad, which used a robot to detonate the case at about 4:30 p.m. after notifying area business owners, including officials at nearby Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, that they would hear a loud explosion when the briefcase was destroyed. Authorities, who also used bomb-sniffing dogs to secure the area before letting employees back into the mall at about 5 p.m., did not find any explosives in the briefcase, Carranza said.
The incident is still under investigation, and the caller who reported the suspicious activity is not viewed as a suspect, she said, noting that authorities are examining security footage from the scene.
For hours after the noontime evacuation, the Taylors and hundreds of shoppers were stranded outside the mall unable to return to their cars in the parking garage, which was sealed off with yellow caution tape and guarded by security officers.
Carranza said the evacuation was "quick and orderly." But eyewitnesses described varying levels of panic depending on what area of the mall they were in at the time.
Katelyn Gentry, a 23-year-old employee at a hair-care store in the mall, also had trouble hearing the announcement but immediately locked up the store with a co-worker and headed to a drugstore parking lot across the street, which was the designated meet-up spot for employees.
"I became pretty anxious. Unfortunately, my first thought was that it was a possible shooter," Gentry said. "But it's really ironic; they had just had an evacuation drill, so everybody knew where to go."
Guidance was not as clear in the food court on the third floor of the mall, where 59-year-old Greg Flint and his wife never even heard an announcement. They had stopped in for lunch before visiting their elder daughter and newborn grandson at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
Their tipoff on the bomb scare came from their younger daughter, who was on her way into the Beverly Center to meet them when "hundreds of people began running at her," Flint said. "She called my wife and said, 'You need to get out now.' Just after she called, an alarm went off."
Those sirens wailed for much of the afternoon as the crowds spilled out onto the sidewalk near the cordoned-off streets surrounding the Beverly Center. The Flints finished their lunch on a bus stop bench and then walked to the hospital to visit their grandson Daniel (who came in "quite handsome" at 6 pounds, 15 ounces," his grandfather reported). Because of the police barriers, "a hundred-yard walk turned into a half-mile, but it certainly was worth it," Flint said.
Other shoppers, such as Robert Hernandez, a Web journalism professor at USC Annenberg, simply had to wait in the neighborhood to get back to their cars. He and his wife, who had been shopping at H&M with their 4-year-old daughter, were forced to abandon their clothing selections when the alarms went off.
Along with other Beverly Center patrons, Hernandez voiced his frustrations on Twitter: "Alls I know is I am going back in the mall (when re-opened) to buy the clothes that took forever to try on. #dontlettheterroristswin," he tweeted midway through the ordeal.