Physically, the device did not much more than knock some ceiling tiles loose and fill a service corridor with smoke. Psychologically, the attack Sunday was another matter entirely to Lake Wales, Fla., about 30 miles southwest of Orlando.
“We’re a family-oriented community; this is a family-oriented mall,” said deputy police chief Troy Schulze, whose son had been working at Eagle Ridge Mall during the explosion.
“People here shopping, just enjoying a Sunday afternoon with their family, and literally, boom. That somebody would do that …”
As Schulze spoke to reporters in the parking lot Sunday night, officers formed a perimeter around the stores behind him. Inside the mall, a bomb squad made its way from the J.C. Penney to the movie theater, where another suspicious package had been reported.
The explosion happened about 5:30 p.m., Schulze said — half an hour before Eagle Ridge closed up for the day. WTSP reported that two pipe bombs, flares wrapped in PVC and electrical tape, went off in a delivery corridor outside the J.C. Penney.
Firefighters arrived to find the corridor wall and ceiling battered, Schulze said. No people had been nearby. They found a book bag in the hallway, which they suspected contained a second device.
“At that time they didn’t know if they’d detonated or not, or were live or not,” Schulze said.
Police pulled up minutes after the firetrucks. They evacuated frightened workers and dozens of shoppers, Schulze said. In interviews outside the mall, they learned that a white, middle-aged, heavyset man in a gray shirt and gray hat was spotted running from the mall around the time of the explosion.
Witnesses also reported a suspicious package outside the mall’s movie theater, thought WTSP later reported that this turned out to be an old box of no consequence.
Investigators in two counties and federal officials were put on the case, Schulze said. He had no idea what the bomber’s motive was — whether to start a fire or kill someone or something else.
“We’re definitely not calling it an act of terrorism at this point,” he said. “That’s up to the FBI.”
Nevertheless, Schulze said, the mall would be open for business Monday morning — albeit with police standing guard nearby.