By Carey Codd

BOCA RATON (CBSMiami) – A popped balloon is what likely led to an active shooter scare, massive evacuation, and hours of chaos at the Town Center Mall in Boca Raton on Sunday, Boca Raton Police announced Sunday.

Police said surveillance video shows a janitor pushing a garbage cart through the food court. The garbage cart rolled over and dragged a balloon, which the janitor told police he simply popped.

The pieces of the balloon were recovered on the floor, said police.

The police statement says there appears to be a delay of a couple of minutes between when the janitor popped the balloon and when people are seen fleeing the area. Video footage shows people in the food court visibly react to a loud sound in the area. Other witnesses indicate that they heard a balloon pop.

The popped balloon led to erroneous reports of an active shooter, triggering an evacuation of shoppers and a massive police response.

Police searched the mall extensively but found no evidence of a shooter or any weapons.

One man suffered a “traumatic injury to his head,” when he collided with a door while attempting to evacuate. The man was found in the parking lot near Bloomingdale’s. He spoke Creole and was drifting in and out of consciousness, so he was unable to provide any information about how he was hurt.

He was treated at a local hospital.

Sadly, we’ve seen the unnecessary panic that played out at the Town Center here on Sunday play out elsewhere across South Florida and across the country in recent months and years. It appears to be a sign of the mass shooting times in which we live.

Boca Raton Mayor Scott Singer said there are critical lessons to be learned from Sunday’s scare.

“We live in an era where everyone wants instant information,” Singer told CBS 4 News. “I think everyone is going to have to adjust to the fact that in a high profile situation like this, we may not have accurate information instantly so it’s important not to believe every rumor that comes across.”

Rumors that police needed to investigate. Singer said more than 100 calls came into Boca Raton police and officers also needed to search through each store in the large mall. All of that takes significant time. It’s all evidence of the potential minefield of unverified information in a situation unfolding in real time as police try to decipher what’s true and what’s not.

“It’s important for residents to know that they’re doing their job and trying to get accurate information as quickly as possible,” Singer said. “In the meantime it may seem awhile but please be patient and know that you’re not going to get an instant answer.”

It’s happened elsewhere recently in our backyard. A toy rifle in Davie was mistaken for a real firearm. A scare at Pembroke Lakes Mall last Christmas began with an argument over a stroller. A major panic unfolded at Dolphin Mall in Sweetwater last November after a fire alarm went off.

It’s natural that people instinctively rush to safety in those moments. But that panic can cause problems. Singer says the Boca scare on Sunday shows that we all need to keep things in perspective especially in tense times.

“I think it’s a lesson for all of us to try to remain calm even when we hear reports — unconfirmed reports — of incidents that police will respond fully and swiftly as they did to their great credit but that it may take a few minutes or even a few hours to get the full story out there,” he said.

Singer said police will prepare an after action report on the incident to determine what they did well and if they have other areas that need to be strengthened.

Carey Codd

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