UPDATE: As if loud bangs mistaken for gunfire weren’t enough, police at the Garden State Plaza last night also had to contend with an unsecured backpack found during the chaos near JC Penney.
A Demarest police officer who found the pack determined that it contained personal items.
A hectic night with a peaceful ending once again tested the response capability of tactical teams and local police departments.
By 8:30 p.m. — roughly 20 minutes after the initial 911 call — Paramus police called off any further reinforcements. Hundreds of officers from various towns and agencies, some in tactical gear with assault rifles, were more than enough.
Paramus Police Chief Kenneth Ehrenberg confirmed just before midnight that no shots were fired.
“Several patrons received minor injures during the initial exodus,” the chief said later.
It began with a car fire just outside Macy’s.
“At a point during the fire, some smoke began to enter the northeast doors of Macy’s,” Ehrenberg said at 2:30 a.m. “People in that area of the store were advised by store personal to move out of that section of the store.
“At some point one of the evacuees knocked over a large metal display stanchion located on the main level of Macy’s,” the chief said. “This large noise, which might have sounded similar to a gun shot, caused a cascade of panic and more people began to quickly evacuate the area.
“As the crowd rushed from the store on both the main and lower levels of Macys, another display setup, located on the lower level of Macy’s, near the mall entrance, toppled over causing additional large noises.”
(Some media reports mistakenly claimed that the noises were caused by tires popping on the flaming sedan.)
The mall and movie theater were nearly full, Ehrenberg noted.
At this point, the 911 calls began pouring in. The mall was quickly evacuated and locked down.
“I was there this evening with my wife and 3 kids — youngest is two years old,” wrote Ronen Magid. “We didn’t hear a thing and, all of a sudden, we spotted a stampede of hundreds of terrified people running our way, some with little children in their arms, screaming ‘Shooting!’ ”
All kind of reports flew via in texts, emails, on Twitter and Facebook, and on all manner of news media. It was a Saturday night, after all, it had been raining and the mall pretty much swells with people around 8.
It led to some alarming — and false — dispatches.
One CLIFFVIEW PILOT reader said her daughter told her that she’d seen someone with a gun. Another said a juvenile had been grazed by a bullet outside the AMC movie theater. A movie usher told patrons he saw someone being chased.
Police searched the entire mall, just to be sure, as most everyone involved thought back to the Nov. 4 night last year when a gunman fired randomly inside before killing himself in a secluded area.
“The last locked down stores were searched and cleared by midnight,” the chief said.
By 12:50, all “assets” had been cleared, New Jersey State Police said.
The restaurants and movie theaters were reopening for Mother’s Day. The retail stores will reopen, as usual, tomorrow.
PHOTO: Brittany Berdy @bmb22