I Sur­vived a Stam­ped­ing Crowd

Reader's Digest International - - Bonus Read - BY KENDRA GERLACH FROM JEMS: THE JOUR­NAL OF EMER­GENCY MED­I­CAL SER­VICES

It was Au­gust of last year, and as we were about to leave the Crab­tree Val­ley Mall in Raleigh, North Carolina, my sis­ter stepped into a kids’ shoe store near the food court. My 15-year-old nephew took the op­por­tu­nity to re­fill his drink. While my mother waited near the store with my niece, I went to round up my nephew.

I headed through the large food court and spot­ted him at the Chick-fil-A counter. That’s when I heard what sounded like a train mov­ing through the food court. Its mo­men­tum built around me, and the floor be­gan to shake. Then I saw peo­ple emerge from around the cor­ner: scores of peo­ple run­ning through the food court, scream­ing, wav­ing their hands in the air.

It was a stam­pede, and it was about to swal­low up my nephew. I watched the wave of peo­ple as it reached him. His drink long for­got­ten, he had to run or he’d be tram­pled. So he ran.

And that’s when I heard the gun­shots ring out be­hind me—clear, loud, and un­mis­tak­able.

Peo­ple’s be­long­ings—bags, cell phones—were tossed aside, sac­ri­ficed in the pri­mal urge to flee to safety. Food and drinks were spilling ev­ery­where, mak­ing the floor im­pos­si­bly slip­pery. I was be­ing pushed, pulled, and shoved. Some­one ripped my dress, and I fell to my knees, my face nearly thrust into a sweeper bas­ket, the kind mall em­ploy­ees use to col­lect trash off the floors.

I scram­bled up and saw my nephew too far ahead for me to reach. I yelled his name, but my voice was swal­lowed up by the deaf­en­ing noise of the mob.

“Stay on your feet,” I kept telling my­self. “Please, God.” It was as much of a prayer as I could muster in those mo­ments.

I fi­nally passed through the exit doors, eyes on my nephew. I watched him cross over a bridge con­nect­ing the mall to the park­ing deck. I charged along the bridge as best I could in the crowd. He turned left and took refuge in a con­crete al­cove. I fol­lowed him there and grabbed his arm.

With both of us breath­ing hard, our con­ver­sa­tion was choppy and func­tional.

“What hap­pened?”

“I don’t know.”

“Where are they?”

“They went into Stride Rite.” My mom and six-year-old niece had been out­side the shoe store wait­ing for my sis­ter when the stam­pede over­took them. Big, un­known hands pushed Mom to the ground. She quickly pulled my niece down, and they crawled un­der a ta­ble, which is where my sis­ter found them.

The mob passed by, and sud­denly they were alone in this large, open space. Be­ing ex­posed felt even more dan­ger­ous than the stam­ped­ing crowd.

Two men ran to them, yelling some­thing. Were these the shoot­ers? One of the men sud­denly had Mom in a bear hug, and she was up, helped back to her feet. The men hur­ried off.

Shortly there­after, my fam­ily ap­peared out­side: Mom, bare­foot from hav­ing lost her shoes in the melee, and my sis­ter and niece. Mom’s breath­ing was la­bored, her mouth gaped open, and her chest heaved.

My sis­ter had my mother by the arm and was guid­ing her. I took her other arm and be­gan re­peat­ing over and over, “Ev­ery­one is OK. No one is hurt.”

As min­utes passed, we watched po­lice ar­rive and be­gin block­ing the mall en­trances, their long guns in tow as they guarded the doors. Ul­ti­mately, EMS crews trans­ported eight peo­ple to lo­cal hos­pi­tals for in­juries sus­tained in the stam­pede, but no shooter was ever found.

No one is cer­tain what trig­gered the may­hem. Was it an ac­tive shooter? Was it an act of ter­ror­ism? We may never know, but one thing is cer­tain: Incit­ing ter­ror in the public causes a herd men­tal­ity to take over. Mob rule be­comes the pre­vail­ing force. Re­ac­tions are vis­ceral. Peo­ple fight for their own sur­vival. Many will be ruth­less in this fight. We were scared for our lives.

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