WELLINGTON, Fla. — A drill at the Mall at Wellington Green sparked chaos and confusion Sunday.
Some movie customers who attended the 5:20 p.m. showing of the Lion King said they never saw signs apparently posted after the mall closed at 6 p.m. and after they were in the theater that read an active shooter drill would take place from 7 until 11 p.m. The Paragon movie theater is connected to the mall.
The drill was a multi-agency event with the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office and two other agencies.
Witnesses describe hearing gunshots that caused people to scream "active shooter" before others started running down the hallway.
“There was trash, hand bags, shoes, people laying down crouched with their kids and kids crying,” said Phil Ventresca, who was at the theater with his mother and sister.
Ventresca was in the men’s room when the chaos broke out.
“When I heard the streak of an older mother running in with a kid in her arms and going into a stall then I knew something was up,” he said.
Ventresca said it wasn’t until minutes later a large crowd of people realized it was only a drill.
One movie customer shared cellphone video of the drill that was taking place just on the other side of the glass doors separating the theater and the mall.
WPTV spoke to some people who applauded law enforcement's efforts to train for real-life situations but believed more could have been done to notify movie patrons and theater employees.
“Everybody is on edge as it is and you go out to the movie theater thinking you can get away from that and relax a little bit,” said Gary Ventresca, whose daughter called him amid the hysteria. “There was some real culpability here.”
PBSO said the annual drill was scheduled months in advance and issued this statement:
"On Sunday, August 4th from 6:30 pm to about 11:00 pm, PBSO, Boca Police Department and Florida Highway Patrol are conducting our annual active shooter training at the Mall at Wellington Green. Our active shooter training is based on mass casualty situations and real-world scenarios. Our main goal with this training is to be ready for an active shooter situation and to be able to seek, identify and defeat the threat. The residents of Palm Beach County's safety is our priority."
The Mall at Wellington Green released this statement to WPTV on Monday:
"As you know, the safety of our guests, tenants and employees is the highest priority for both The Mall at Wellington Green and our partners in law enforcement. Every year, we take part in and support response preparation training with the Palm Beach Sheriff's Office, the Boca Police Department, and the Florida Highway Patrol. As additional response training occurs, we’ll continue to post training-related signage throughout the mall and encourage tenants to share the information with customers."
The timing of the training happened on the heels of two mass shootings. Adults say they were able to quickly process it wasn't real but they worried about all the young kids in the theater who experienced what they described as mass hysteria.
CMX Cinemas, which owns the theater at the mall told WPTV signs were posted inside the theater for about a week, and the drill was scheduled months ago. A spokesperson called it unfortunate timing coming off the events and shootings over the weekend.
“For those of us who weren’t notified that it was a drill, or didn’t see the small sign, it was as real as it could get,” Phil Ventresca said. “ just any type of additional notification would’ve been huge, it could’ve saved a lot of trauma for a lot of people.”