By Phuong Le and Gillian Flaccus
The Associated Press
BURLINGTON — The first 9-1-1 call came in just before 7 p.m. on a busy Friday night at the Cascade Mall: A man with a rifle was shooting at people in the Macy’s Department Store.
By the time police arrived moments later, the carnage at the Macy’s makeup counter was complete.
Four people were dead and the shooter was gone, last seen walking toward Interstate 5. A fifth victim, a man, died in the early morning hours Saturday as police finished sweeping the 434,000-square-foot building.
“There are people waking up this morning and their world has changed forever. The city of Burlington has probably changed forever, but I don’t think our way of life needs to change,” Burlington Mayor Steve Sexton said Saturday at a news conference.
“This was a senseless act. It was the world knocking on our doorstep and it came into our little community.”
As the small city absorbed the news, critical questions remained, including the identity of the shooter, his motive and his whereabouts. A massive manhunt continued and police broadcast a plea for tips. The FBI said terrorism was not suspected.
The gunman was described by witnesses to police as a young Hispanic man dressed in black. Surveillance video captured him entering the mall unarmed and then recorded him about 10 minutes later entering the Macy’s with a “hunting type” rifle in his hand, Mount Vernon Police Lt. Chris Cammock said.
Authorities did not say how the suspect may have obtained the weapon — whether he retrieved it from outside or picked it up in the mall — but they believe he acted alone. The weapon was recovered at the scene.
The identities of the victims — four women who ranged in age from a teenager to a senior citizen — were withheld pending autopsies and notification of family. The identity of the man who was fatally shot was also withheld.
“Probably one of the most difficult moments for us last night was knowing that there were family members wondering about their loved ones in there,” Cammock said.
As police scrambled to find the shooter, this small city about 60 miles north of Seattle settled into a new and nerve-wracking reality.
The community of 8,600 people is too far from Seattle to be a commuter town, but its population swells to 55,000 during the day because of a popular outlet mall, retail stores and other businesses.
Burlington is the only major retail center within 30 miles in a region where agriculture is king, said Linda Jones, the president of the Burlington Chamber of Commerce.
Surrounding Skagit County has deep agricultural roots and is home to families that have worked the land for generations.
Farmers produce about $300 million worth of more than 90 different crops a year — a heritage that’s celebrated each October with tours of family farms that attract thousands, according to Washington State University’s agricultural extension.
Residents, rattled by the fact that the shooter was still on the loose, relied on those bonds Saturday to comfort each other at a community gathering in a city park.
“It’s too scary. It’s too close to home,” said Maria Elena Vasquez, who attended the gathering with her husband and two young children.
“I’m a little nervous even taking her to her soccer game today with this person still on the loose. But I want to keep it normal for her,” she said of her 7-year-old daughter.
Those who survived were still trying to process what happened as their community became the latest entry on a list of places known by the rest of world for mass shootings.
As the shots rang out, shoppers hid in dressing rooms and bathrooms and made hushed, terrified phone calls to relatives. One woman started running with her 4-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter only to slip and fall — and then watch as the shooter strode past her terrified children, KIRO-TV reported on its Twitter feed.
“We have never been so scared in our lives,” the woman texted the station.
Joanne Burkholder, 19, of nearby Mount Vernon, was watching the movie “The Magnificent Seven” in the mall’s theater when security guards came in and told them to evacuate immediately.
Dozens of panicked moviegoers gathered in the hallway, and Burkholder heard screaming as the officers escorted them to safety in a parking lot.
As she drove home later, she had to pull over because she was shaking so hard, she told The Associated Press.
“I’m just very thankful for my life this morning. I’ve never been so terrified in my life,” she said Saturday, trying to hold back tears as she attended the community vigil.
“You’d think it would happen in Everett or Seattle, but a small town of Burlington, I’d never dream something like this would happen.”
Noel Cuevas, 39, who lives in nearby Mount Vernon, was eating dinner with his family at the mall when he saw people running.
A woman told them to evacuate and he grabbed his 5-year-old daughter and he and his wife ran outside and across the street. When he finally got home Friday night, Cuevas made sure all his doors and windows were locked.
“Nobody knows who it is. He’s out there,” he said, as he waited Saturday to pick up the truck he had left in the mall parking lot. “He could be anywhere.”
Emergency management officials started to allow some people to retrieve their vehicles Saturday, though the mall was shuttered through Monday morning.
People who believed they may have lost loved ones were being sequestered at a church three blocks from the mall, where counselors and a golden retriever therapy dog were present.
Another vigil was planned for Saturday evening in the nearby town of Sedro-Woolley.
The Cascade Mall is an enclosed shopping mall that opened in 1990. It features J.C. Penney, TJ Maxx, and Macy’s stores, among other shops, restaurants and a movie theater.
On Sept. 17, a man stabbed 10 people at a Minnesota mall before being shot and killed by an off-duty police officer. Authorities say Dahir Ahmed Adan, 20, stabbed the people at the Crossroads Center in St. Cloud.