Gunfire sent panicked shoppers scrambling for cover at one of the busiest malls in the country Thursday after an altercation between two groups of men led to a weapon being drawn.

Yorkdale Shopping Centre remained on lockdown for most of the afternoon and evening after shots were fired in the busy mall in broad daylight at around 2:50 p.m.

“There was an altercation between two groups of men. At some point one of the individuals from one of the groups discharged a firearm at least twice, a handgun,” Superintendent Rob Johnson told reporters Thursday evening. “Those individuals appear to have left the mall.”

Johnson said there were officers stationed at the mall when the 911 calls came in.

Multiple social media users posted that they were sheltering in stores after the shots were fired.

“I’m in Yorkdale shots were fired? Locked in the Rolex store for safety,” Twitter user Kelly Freeman tweeted.

“Was eating at The Cheesecake Factory when alarms started going and people started running. Stuck in the parking lot,” wrote Travis Paul, another Twitter user who was at the mall.

A short time later, police tweeted that there was aconfirmed discharge of a weapon in the area and said the mall was being evacuated. Police later confirmed that the shooting took place on the east side of the mall and said the shopping centre is in lockdown.

Mall patrons ran, hid in stores

The shooting took place at Yorkdale, one of the busiest shopping centres in the country, as thousands of people were out doing back-to-school shopping.  

Bystanders at the mall who were in the area of Starbucks and Nadege said they heard shots fired right before a chaotic scene unfolded.

Frank Stanisci told CP24 he was dance-walking through the mall when he stumbled onto the scene where he saw one man fire a weapon at another.

“As I walked by I heard a yell ‘hey’ and then this guy ran by me,” Stanisci said. “And then a gun came out. And a shot went this way. And there were three shots – he shot repeatedly three times. I basically high-tailed it out of there.”

Stanisci said just a few feet separated the shooter from his target. 

“It was a small guy who did the shooting, and a big football player-looking guy who ran in front of him. He started about 12 or 14 feet in front of him.”

He said while escaping, he came across an elderly woman on the ground who was with a young woman in a wheelchair and helped them get away from the gunfire.

“I helped them get the older lady up and we pushed the wheelchair down the hallway until one of the stores, it looked like a clothing store, said come in,” Stanisci said. “I was yelling at the kids to just run. We ran and we got into the store. Get away from the window. We hid in the back where the tailor did all the sewing and stuff and we waited for the police to leave.”

Another man said he was close to the scene when he heard gunshots.

“We were right beside what happened. It happened in the area of Starbucks and Nadege. We were in the Arc’teryx store,” one man at the mall told CP24. “What we heard sounded like two gunshots. When we heard that everyone started scrambling. All we could think of was head to the back of the store.”

He said 14 people huddled at the back of the store while they tried to call police.

“The police then came to get us out of the room, guns drawn. It was something I was not used to seeing in the city of Toronto. Not only how I felt – everyone was, it was surreal at first. I think people might’ve felt it wasn’t what it was, but I knew they were gunshots. Everybody was running.”

Store workers at the mall described locking their doors and hiding patrons in the back of stores.

“We were just working and then my coworkers and customers started hearing gunshots,” anemployee named Krystal told CP24. “We locked the front and back of the store and then hid in our personal washroom with about 11 other people in a very small washroom. It was just crazy. Everyone started freaking out.”

She said they were stuck in the store washroom for about 20 to 30 minutes before she crawled to the front of the store to see if it was clear to come out.

“I was scared because our front of the store is all glass so you can clearly see what’s going on inside,” she said.

She then spotted police, who escorted them out of the store.

Another young woman who works at Nadege said she saw a stroller with a baby still inside knocked over as panicked shoppers fled for cover.

One woman named Alexis told CP24 she was having coffee with her daughter Sam at the dessert shop when they heard a big bang.

“We assumed it may have been a balloon or something and then we heard a second shot and we had to find cover,” Alexis said. “We ran under a ledge- there was a little girl who was just clenched onto me – I had no idea who this girl was. There was a mom and her son just falling over me.”

The two then hid on the floor under a ledge and tried to stay out of sight until police arrived.

“I am just in shock that I am even experiencing something like this,” said Sam. “It’s all a blur. It’s a crazy feeling.”

Police searching for suspects

In a tweet, police said they are looking for multiple suspects. They described one suspect as a male in his 20s who was wearing a black jacket with a hoodie and blue jeans. A second suspect was described as a skinny male in his 20s, standing around five-foot-nine and carrying a black handgun.

Police later said that there were at least three males in each party, but detailed suspect descriptions were not available for all of them. The suspects are believed to have fled through the southeast corner of the mall, but it is not known if they escaped on transit or in a vehicle.

Yellow police tape cordoned off an area outside of Nordtrom’s and a number of heavily armed officers could be seen going in and out of the mall Thursday afternoon. Officers could also be seen searching planters around the perimeter of the mall.

One person was transported from Yorkdale by paramedics, but their injuries were not directly related to the shots that were fired, police said. In total, two people sustained minor injuries in the process of trying to flee the mall, police said. No serious injuries have been reported.

Aerial images showed hundreds of people standing in crowds outside the busy mall following the evacuation.

A number of people reported difficulty leaving the area as subway service to the mall was shut down and cabs had difficulty accessing the area.

Police said Thursday evening that they are helping store employees re-enter the mall so that they can retrieve belongings and close their stores.

“We are in the process of interviewing witnesses and retrieving evidence,” Johnson said.

He added that police are also retrieving surveillance video that they can use to try to identify the suspects.

“We’ll be here until we make sure the place is safe and until we have all available evidence,” Johnson said. “I don’t know how long that will take.”

Police are advising people to avoid the area of the mall for the time being.

In a statement, Yorkdale Shopping Centre said the mall would be closed for the rest of the day as police investigate. The mall is expected to reopen at 10 a.m. Friday.

Patrons and mall employees who left things behind as they fled are being advised to call Yorkdale Shopping Centre security at 416-256-5097 to retrieve their belongings.

-With files from Chris Herhalt