A prankster who triggered a fire alarm at Greenacres Shopping Centre at the weekend set in motion a bizarre chain of events that sent hundreds of terrified shoppers fleeing for cover in the mistaken belief they were being attacked by gunmen.
The panic intensified when two loud bangs, mistaken for gunshots, were heard shortly after the evacuation alarm was sounded at about 3pm on Saturday.
Police officials from across Port Elizabeth, including the K9 unit, Flying Squad and Tactical Response Team, raced to investigate after the 10111 call centre was flooded with calls from panicked shoppers claiming gunmen had stormed the building.
Television star Connie Ferguson, who was at the centre to promote a body lotion branded under her name, was among those caught up in the mayhem.
Shoppers fled the centre in droves while others darted into nearby shops for cover. Several store workers shut the doors to their premises while, according to police, shoppers and staff lay on the ground.
Adding to the chaos, Fischer’s Jewellers staff triggered their smoke and panic alarm, which led to a plume of smoke filling the corridors near the shop.
Responding police surrounded the mall complex before storming the building, only to find the entire ordeal was sparked by a prankster who had triggered the food court fire alarm.
In a bid to quell fears of a robbery at the centre, Greenacres management took to Facebook to assure shoppers it was a false alarm.
Their bid to stop panic from spreading meant nothing to shoppers, who ran fearing for their lives. They included Ferguson, who took refuge in the back room of a cellular shop.
The former Generations actress, best known for playing Karabo Moroka for more than a decade and now starring in telenova The Queen, took to Twitter to share her experience in which her Tumi purse “with my whole life in it!” and rose-gold iPhone 6 Plus went missing.
“This after surviving a stampede of people running away and all over the place from a presumed armed robbery in the centre! If it hadn’t been so scary it would actually be funny!”
Greenacres manager Brent Starr said the alarm was sparked by a prankster who broke the fire glass, triggering the voice-activated evacuation message to sound over the mall’s speakers.
“Due to the evacuation message sounding, one of the women working at the information counter opened the flap to get out of the kiosk. Obviously, being in a hurry as people were running, she lifted the flap which then fell down, leading to a loud bang,” he said.
“This appears to have led to more pandemonium, which prompted the jewellery store to trigger their security alarm.
“We have since removed the flap so that it cannot happen again.
“I will also be having a meeting with all role-players [today] to determine the best way forward and address the issues so that it does not reoccur.”
Starr said a new safety and fire system had been installed recently in a bid to enhance existing security measures at the centre.
Police spokeswoman Colonel Priscilla Naidu said their emergency call centre was alerted when “explosions” that sounded like gunshots were heard inside the mall.
“Shoppers scurried for safety after hearing two loud ‘explosions’ inside the building. According to witnesses inside the centre, the explosions sounded like gunfire, prompting a jewellery store in the centre to activate their security alarm,” she said.
“Due to the security alarm releasing smoke, the immediate vicinity was covered in thick smoke, adding to the confusion.”
The incident comes in the wake of a recent robbery at the same branch of Fischer’s in July. The heist led to a shootout in the car park which saw Ronald Goduka, 66, killed by the robbers when they attempted to hijack his vehicle.
“In the light of a recent incident at the mall [the July robbery] it is not unusual for tenants to be on their guard at all times,” Naidu said.
“They are commended for taking the necessary precautions and also for being alert to any suspicious sounds.”
But shoppers had mixed views of the incident.
Lee-Ann Evans Riche posted in reply to the centre management’s announcement that she was with her son near Clicks when the chaos started.
“It was a terrifying experience. We also heard a sound, like the sound of gunshots. We ran for our lives while others were running from Checkers’ side screaming,” she wrote on Facebook.
“I’m so glad my son did not see the police. Once we got out we walked around past CNA. That is when we walked into the smoke near Fischer’s. It was a terrible experience – clearly puts me off going back to Greenacres.”
Lakin Hafkie wrote she no longer went to Greenacres.
“Our baby girl is still traumatised of the last ‘false alarm’ you had in June. She is four years old and was terrified and worried about her four-month-old brother, who wasn’t strapped in his pram at the time because we were busy eating,” she wrote.
“Do you have an evacuation plan in place with the tenants? They seem more confused than us, your customers, when these incidents occur.”