Updated at 11:08 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 24, 2018 with more information.
Reports of shots fired and a gun found in the parking lot of Sears forced an evacuation of the Hamilton Place mall Saturday night as law enforcement descended on the scene in force.
Chattanooga Police spokesman Rob Simmons said witnesses described an argument and then shots fired shortly after 6 p.m. outside the department store. No victims were found, but police swept the scene to gather evidence and will be examining security footage to identify any suspects, but had no suspect information Saturday evening, Simmons said.relatedarticlethumb
After further investigation, Chattanooga police found no evidence of shots having ever been fired, according to Simmons.
"There currently is no evidence indicating any shots were fired at the mall," Simmons wrote in a text message to the Times Free Press late Saturday evening. "Investigation is ongoing."
Asked how or why people knew to run from the mall when no shots were fired, Chattanooga police said that's part of what they are trying to determine through the ongoing investigation.
Two witnesses, who declined to be identified, said they saw a fight break out, followed by a gunshot, then they saw a person on the ground. They said that's when people started running for the exits.
Another witness said the group of people fighting appeared to be in their teens.
Rebekah Taylor, store manager at Simply Mac, said she was working when she heard some loud noises and then "people screaming and running."
"We didn't know what it was at first, and then we heard gunshots and just ran," she said. "Everyone had just ran, so once we were outside, everyone was kind of stranded in the parking lot and getting into strangers' cars so they weren't out in the open."
Another woman, Karen Leonard, said she was in Smoothie King with her 8-year-old daughter when she heard gunfire and hit the ground. After, she said, "it was a mad rush to get out of the mall."
Others hunkered down wherever they could conceal themselves.
"We heard gunshots while we were at the play place with my younger sister," said Alanis McKenzie. "We hid behind one of the clerk's desks at Hollister with about 25 people."
Fernando Elias, the general manager of Rodizio Grill, said he saw several people running out of the mall, which alerted him of a potential problem.
"They were three kids, then just a wave of people running out and leaving the mall," he said.
One of the guns believed to have been used in the incident was left on the pavement in the parking lot outside the store. The weapon was a black handgun with an extended clip. Police had roped off the parking spots near the gun and had an officer standing guard.
The mall was locked down and closed for the evening but was scheduled to reopen today, according to a tweet from the Hamilton Place account.
Others who were in or near the mall at the time said they also heard shots fired and posted messages to social media in a flurry, recounting what they saw and heard.
"Was just in the middle of a shootout at Hamilton Place mall in Chattanooga. Unbelievable. Anarchy," tweeted @SlimCharlesVol. "I can't even begin to describe the absolute terror I saw in people's eyes. Wow."
Another man described what he saw to reporters:
"We are safe, a fight broke out beside us, they walked off with one of them had a ripped shirt, there was a mall cop that came running in our direction and a guy pointed up the stairs and said 'gun.' And then a citizen that was carrying pulled out his gun and yelled 'drop your weapon'" he wrote in a message to reporters.
"What followed was what sounded to be shots fired. Everyone started running and so did we."
Exit doors were folded back as they are when vehicles are brought into the mall to let people get out quickly and safely, Taylor said.
Police have responded to shootings at Hamilton Place before, including a nonfatal incident in March of last year. The victim in that shooting, 34-year-old Robert Driver Jr. suffered a minor gunshot wound in the parking lot near Bar Louie.
Two other men, Malik Beavers, 18, and Adam Bulloch, 19, were shot in a separate incident several months before on Black Friday in 2016. The incident began as a fight between seven or eight men in the mall, but the argument spilled outside into the Sears and J.C. Penney parking lot.
A juvenile arrested three days later in connection to the shooting was charged with and pleaded guilty in juvenile court to two counts of attempted murder and reckless endangerment.
Times Free Press staff members Meg Scarbrough, Rosana Hughes and Meghan Mangrum contributed to this report.
Contact staff writer Mark Pace at email@example.com or 423-757-6659. Follow him on Twitter @the markpace. Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6731. Follow him on Twitter @emmettgienapp.