ORLANDO, Fla. – Multiple people were hurt and The Florida Mall in Orlando was evacuated Thursday when popping balloons were mistaken for gunshots in an active-shooter situation, according to deputies.
Mall officials told News 6 that the scare happened as crews were setting up for the grand opening of former *NSYNC star Joey Fatone’s new restaurant, Fat One’s. Deputies said as part of the inspection for the grand opening, the balloon test was scheduled to be completed through a contracted vendor as part of an industry standard.
"An announcement was made on the PA system informing shoppers and employees the test would be conducted," deputies said in an email to News 6. "The test consisted of six large balloons popping consecutively, followed by a fire alarm. This caused people to go into panic mode and run."
Mark Comer said he was inside the mall with his sister, Ebony Foreemon, when a wave of people started scrambling towards him.
"She told us shooting, shooting, shooting, and we see a massive crowd run. You put two and two together, you don't stick around to find out what's going on. You just run," Comer said. "I saw their faces and they looked as if they just had saw something terrible, so I keep watching and just more people. It's a flood."
Foreemon was in the bathroom when she got pushed in even further by the rush of families trying to take cover.
"There's children falling. People are dragging children. People are getting stepped on. There are elderly people falling. It was absolute mayhem," Foreemon said.
OCSO says there was no shooting @ the Florida Mall, several balloons popped at the grand opening of a store @news6wkmg Heading that way now— Jennifer Ortega (@JenniferNOrtega) August 25, 2016
Social media quickly started blowing up with rumors of an active shooter inside, people tweeting they were running and scared.
Deputies said the mall was evacuated because of reports of an active shooter, but they later confirmed there was no shooting and the incident was prompted because of the balloons.
Comer said balloons or not, it felt real.
"The average American doesn't know what a gun sounds like. They know it's loud and it goes bang," Comer said. "You put a mall full of people shopping with their kids, and you heard a bang and you see people running."
"Those balloons did more damage than they would of if something like that didn't already happen. In the same time not too far apart. Pulse wasn't too far from it. It's just really bad timing for balloons to go off in the mall," Foreemon said.
Emergency crews said because of everyone trying to get out, nine people were injured, from a twisted knee to a head injury from someone falling down.
The mall was evacuated for about an hour. The scene has been cleared and the mall is open for business.
"This afternoon at one of the food kiosks in the Dining Pavilion at The Florida Mall, the Orange County Fire Marshall's office was performing a fire suppression test," said Les Morris, mall spokesperson. "As part of this test, a bladder system within the device unexpectedly popped several times startling some customers. The test has been concluded. Florida Mall remained open and is operating as usual."
Orange County Fire Rescue later said it did not conduct the test and that the fire marshal was on scene to ensure the system was functioning properly and sign off on the permit.
"The Orange County Fire Marshal's office regulates the installation of fire protection systems. Permits are issued and inspections conducted to verify proper installation and functionality of these systems prior to allowing occupancy," Orange County Fire Rescue said in a statement. "Inspections are scheduled at the request of the contractor. Inspection is performed through observation of installation practices and operational tests conducted by the fire protection contractor in cooperation with a building owner. The inspector does not direct or supervise the contractor or touch any equipment during the inspection."
OCFR also added that the test should not have been scheduled during the middle of the day in the busy food court, but said it wasn't involved with making the plan.