Experts: Crabtree Valley Mall panic fueled by fear of terror attacks

Crabtree Valley Mall shooting reports cause panic, lockdown, evacuation, road closures and minor injuries

VIDEO: The scene at Crabtree Valley Mall after reports of shots fired in the food court area August 13, 2016.
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VIDEO: The scene at Crabtree Valley Mall after reports of shots fired in the food court area August 13, 2016.

The hundreds of 911 phone calls fielded by emergency dispatchers following reports of someone firing gunshots at Crabtree Valley Mall two weeks ago captured the fear, confusion and uncertainty experienced by thousands of patrons and employees streaming from the exits or seeking places to hide in the stores.

That response was greatly influenced by terrorist attacks and other mass shootings in the United States and abroad, two Triangle psychologists said this week.

They say part of the blame for the mass hysteria at the mall on Aug. 13 was the “repeated tragedies” that have taken place since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, including the shootings in crowds in the past year in San Bernardino, Calif., and Orlando, Fla.

“Now that these events have happened in rapid succession, people respond to what could happen,” said Raleigh psychologist Stephen Flannelly. “The survival instinct kicks in.”

Allen James Frances, a professor emeritus of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University, said he was “not at all surprised” by how shoppers and employees reacted at Crabtree the day gunshots were reported.

“Human beings are basically herd animals,” said Frances, who said the response was akin to the behavior of meerkats who think they are facing danger.

“If one goes for cover, the whole group will follow,” he said.

Raleigh police said again Thursday that they have found no evidence of gunfire and that after interviewing witnesses and reviewing surveillance camera footage they still cannot explain what caused the loud noise people heard in the mall on Saturday, Aug. 13. Police have sent an audio recording of the sound to the FBI, but the agency’s analysis is not complete, said police spokesman Jim Sughrue.

Flannelly said in a crowd setting, people are apt to not act rationally.

But he quickly added that “mob psychology is not always a bad thing,” even if everyone is acting on a rumor that has not been properly evaluated. He also pointed out that human beings are hard-wired to “fight, flee or freeze” when they encounter disaster, a survival response that dates back to that period in pre-history when humans would flee if they saw a saber-toothed tiger on the horizon.

“If you see a bunch of people running, the normal instinct is to run, too,” he said. “Actually, it’s very Darwinian to go along with the crowd. In the case of shots fired, you probably need to move away. You don’t need to find out what’s going on.”

When the first 911 calls came in about 2:32 p.m., Raleigh police, mindful of what happened in Orlando and San Bernardino, responded in force and called on federal, state and local law enforcement agencies to help evacuate the mall. One of the 911 callers told an emergency dispatcher there was an “active shooter in the food court,” adopting the language of police.

But for the shoppers and employees at Crabtree that day, gunfire and the specter of someone shooting a gun in their midst was very real. One woman whispered to an emergency dispatcher that she was hiding with others in a store on the second floor. “And we’re being held hostage,” she whispered. “Please come help.”

Many of the 299 emergency calls came from storage closets and back rooms of stores where employees and customers took refuge. Others came from people who weren’t at the mall but had heard from friends and relatives that something was going on.

Flannelly said one possible explanation for the woman’s report of being taken hostage was that it was a “panic response.”

“Perception is a powerful thing,” he said. “Somebody can perceive this or that because that’s their reality. It wasn’t actually happening at the time, but it can seem very, very real.”

Flannelly and Frances both said the report of gunfire at the mall was complicated by recent terror attacks in Nice, France, and here in the United States. A consequence of those attacks is that people begin to think such an attack can happen where they live.

Flannelly said that’s one of the terrorists’ main objectives – intimidation through fear.

“If I see someone running, and I ask them why they are running and they say, ‘Aliens have landed and they are holding people hostage in front of the Dillard’s store,’ then I know that’s crap,” he said. “But the idea that someone pulled out a gun and started shooting in front of a department store – well, the first case can’t happen, but the second one could.”

“There have been too many mass shootings,” Flannelly said. “So many that people will think, ‘Well yeah, I believe that really happened.’”

That’s partly why Frances said he was not surprised by the crowd’s response at Crabtree, “especially in an environment where politicians tell us the terrorists are coming to kill us.” Frances said the risks are greater for someone driving a car, or crossing the street, than encountering danger at the mall.

“But the danger at the mall is much more terrifying because it is less familiar,” he said. “We overestimate the risk of terrorists, more than accidents around the house or owning a gun. There are thousands of gun deaths and far fewer terrorist deaths, but people are more afraid of terrorism than they are of guns.”

Thomasi McDonald: 919-829-4533, @tmcdona75589225