Deadly shooting at Toronto's Eaton Centre sparks mass panic

TORONTO - Pandemonium erupted at the largest shopping mall in downtown Toronto Saturday after a shooter let off a string of bullets in a food court packed with weekend shoppers.

The hail of bullets killed a 25-year-old man, injured seven other people and sparked a frenzied mass exodus of the sprawling multi-level shopping centre around 6:30 p.m.

The shooting appears to have been a targeted one that left innocent bystanders caught in the middle, and police vowed to track the suspect down.

"It was unbelievable ... It was out of the blue," said 19-year-old Marcus Neves-Polonio who was working in the mall's food court when he saw a man pull out a gun and start firing.

"As soon as I heard the gunshots, I ducked under the table."

Others who saw the shooting scrambled for cover behind chairs, in washrooms and nearby stores. Still more sprinted for the exits.

Erica Solmes, who manages the McDonald's in the mall's food court, didn't see the shooter, but witnessed the chaos he triggered.

"There was probably 15 bullet shots," she said. "And then a whole stampede of people."

That mad dash resulted in thousands of people pouring into the streets of the downtown core.

"All of a sudden a herd of people were just running toward us, a massive crowd of people screaming, running, freaking out," said Hannah Stewart, 21, who was shopping in the mall at the time. "We saw this girl, sitting on the ground, and she had blood on her toes."

That girl appeared to have been one of the victims and told Stewart she had just been shot. At that point, police poured into the centre and began herding people outside.

"All these cops came running up and they started screaming at us to back off," Stewart said. "They were screaming at us to run and get out."

Toronto Blue Jays third baseman Brett Lawrie was also in the mall when the shooting took place and was one of the first to take to Twitter to break the news.

"Pretty sure someone just let off a round bullets in eaton center mall .. Wow just sprinted out of the mall," he tweeted. "People sprinting up the stairs right from where we just were ... Wow wow wow."

Among those injured in the incident, police said a 20-year-old man and a 13-year-old boy were in critical condition, and a woman and a man had serious injuries. A pregnant woman who was trampled in the rush to get out of the mall went into labour and another woman was grazed by a bullet.

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford called the crime a devastating one.

"It's a tragedy, it's absolutely terrible," he said. "We have to apprehend this shooter.

Police chief Bill Blair said everything is being done to bring the shooter to justice.

"Any place for discharging a fire arm in the city of Toronto is dangerous. In the food court of the Eaton centre on a Saturday evening, it's not only dangerous, it's outrageous," he said.

"The wanton disregard for the lives and safety of fellow citizens are shocking to us."

In a statement issued late Saturday, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty called it a case of "senseless, tragic violence" and expressed his condolences to the victims and their families. He said the tragedy would inspire Ontarians to work even harder to make their communities safer.

"We will respond as we always have — with strength, determination and a desire to work together, and work even harder, to build communities that are safe, secure and free of gun violence," the statement said.

Police are now going through video surveillance and cross referencing witness statements as they try to pull together a clear picture of the shooting and the person who was holding the gun.

A homicide team remained in the centre combing the area for clues Saturday night and officers asked anyone with information on the shooter to contact police.

The corner arrived on scene early Sunday to remove the body of the man who was killed.

Officials said the mall and its parking garages would remain closed Sunday while police pressed on with their investigation.

The evening incident triggered multiple street closures and a partial shutdown of the subway line which runs beneath the mall. Yellow police tape marking a perimeter outside the centre remained in place late Saturday night.

It's not the first time the area has seen gunfire.

In 2005, a 15-year-old girl was killed and six others were wounded on Boxing Day, 2005 when shots rang out just north of the shopping centre.

In that case, Toronto teen Jane Creba was shopping with family on busy Yonge Street when she was caught in the crossfire of a shootout between rival gangs.

"Today certainly harkens back to that terrible moment. This is a very serious thing that has happened in a very public place, an important place in the city of Toronto," said Blair.

"When violence like this takes place in our city, we all have to stand up and say we won't tolerate it."