When gunshots rang out in the food court of Toronto's Eaton Centre, the crowd inside scattered almost instantly. Some shoppers crouched behind displays in nearby stores, while others sprinted for the closest exit, many dropping cellphones and bags in their rush to escape.
The unidentified man police believe is responsible for the bloodshed disappeared as well, slipping away amid the chaos before he could be apprehended.
As police continue to search for the perpetrator, the shooting is raising questions about the state of security in some of Canada's most public gathering places. But security experts say such incidents remain extremely rare, and there's little most shopping centres can do to stop the kind of violence that unfolded in Toronto on Saturday.
"This is one of those things where I think sometimes horrible things happen," said George Rigakos, who chairs the law department at Carleton University. "And no security service, public or private, could have done much to prevent it,"
Dr. Rigakos has studied security in Toronto's downtown and at U.S. malls. He said a few large American centres run critical-incident training for their security staff, including the iconic Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn. But he said that's not common or practical at most shopping centres, where guards are usually preoccupied with shoplifters and other minor disturbances.
Ross McLeod, president of Canada's Association of Professional Security Agencies, said evacuating patrons after the shooting – rather than locking down the building – was a good decision, even if the move may have facilitated the suspected gunman's escape.
"Once there's gunfire, you know people just naturally run away from it. So you may as well facilitate their exit in as safe and orderly a way as possible," he said. "And what you're doing is you're reducing the number of targets available to a shooter as well as the number of hostages."
Mr. McLeod, whose firm Intelligarde provides security for Jane Finch Mall in Toronto, said shopping centre guards are constantly looking out for anything that looks amiss or could lead to confrontation, including anything that could suggest affiliation with a gang.
Many shopping centres ban people from sporting bandanas and other articles of clothing in colours associated with gangs, and some are careful to make sure shoppers can't rearrange food court tables and chairs for fear it could suggest territoriality, he said.
The Eaton Centre's location on Toronto's subway line means many of its patrons are just passing through, complicating day-to-day security efforts, he added.
"The thing about the Eaton Centre is that it has a massive throughput of individuals every day, you know, because it's a transportation hub," he said. "It's not just all a shopping crowd. You're adding a whole bunch of people on the move."
Security experts suggest the only way to make sure guns stay out of shopping malls is to install metal detectors, as some centres in Israel have done. But they add that's an impractical suggestion for most North American shoppers.
"It's just not practical to vet the number of people going into malls with metal detectors," Mr. McLeod said. "Can you imagine, stopping to go into the Eaton Centre in the middle of winter and having to take your shoes off? I mean, come on. The Eaton Centre would go out of business."
With a report from Dakshana Bascaramurty