As Allen mall reopens, reminders and memories of mass shooting remain

Tribune Content Agency

ALLEN, Texas — Slowly, cars pulled into the nearly vacant parking lot of Allen Premium Outlets.

Employees, some reluctant and others relieved, returned to jobs folding clothes and slinging burgers and scoops of frozen yogurt. Shoppers roamed the open-air mall as a security guard made his way around the center asking people how they were doing. Two therapy dogs, Pax and Phoebe, bounded from store to store.

Almost a month after one of North Texas’ most popular shopping centers transformed into the frantic, all-too-familiar site of yet another deadly mass shooting, the mall reopened Wednesday.

Gunfire tore through the mall May 6, as a man wielding assault-style rifles opened fire on a warm Saturday afternoon, killing eight people, wounding seven and traumatizing countless others. A police officer, on an unrelated call nearby, shot and killed the gunman within minutes.

A makeshift memorial with a cluster of crosses and piles of supermarket flowers was removed weeks ago. Gone too were hundreds of stuffed teddy bears and dolls, prayer candles and beaded necklaces.

Yet reminders of the nation’s second-deadliest mass shooting this year remained everywhere: on “Allen Strong” decals posted on store doors, a single heart marking Allen on a map of Texas, in the additional police officers wandering the mall by foot and patrol car, in news helicopters circling above, and mostly, singed into memories of the people working and shopping that day.

“It’s different now,” said Erik Hernandez, 16, a student at McKinney High School who was shopping Wednesday with his mother, Luz Reyna. “It’s just not the same.”

Difficult questions

Killed in the shooting were sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers. Their names were Kyu Cho, 37; Cindy Cho, 35; James Cho, 3; Daniela Mendoza, 11; Sofia Mendoza, 8; Christian LaCour, 20; Elio Cumana-Rivas, 32; and Aishwarya Thatikonda, 26.

At Zwilling Factory Store, a tribute to Cumana-Rivas rested on a table. He was shot on the sidewalk in front of the store as terrified shoppers, including a father with a baby in a stroller, rushed inside to hide.

Store manager Marcus Kergosien said he watched Cumana-Rivas raise his arms, as if asking for mercy, when the gunman shot him a second time. Bullets hit the store’s door frame, and the gunman peered inside the cutlery store before leaving.

Kergosien later learned that Cumana-Rivas had been shopping for a birthday gift for his daughter in Venezuela and was working in the U.S. to send money home to his family.

“We watched him die, and we said prayers for him,” the manager said.

As the drumbeat of mass shootings continues to ravage communities, questions of when to reopen malls, schools, churches and supermarkets are difficult. When is too early? How can such a thing be calculated?

In this case, Simon Property Group, the mall’s owner, told retailers early on it would wait until funerals and memorials for victims had passed.

That closure lasted 25 days. Walmart took three months in 2019 to reopen its El Paso store where 22 people were killed. But many properties have opened much sooner. Simon gave its 120 Allen stores and restaurants the flexibility to reopen at their own pace, and at least one, H&M, will delay opening until June 12, according to a sign posted on the store’s door.

‘Hard to come back’

Wednesday morning, brothers Maxwell and Jerry Gum, 16 and 17, said they were grateful to return to work at Wetzel’s Pretzels, both for a sense of normalcy and the paycheck. The Allen High School students were working at the pretzel shop the day of the shooting, and Maxwell returned later to retrieve their car.

“I felt a little shaken up,” he said.

The family moved to Texas from Boise, Idaho, a few years ago, and they thought this would be a safe place to live.

“We didn’t have many shootings in Idaho,” Jerry said. “We weren’t ready for this.”

Browsing T-shirts and tennis shoes, shoppers said they felt conflicted about safety, but drawn to the mall to show their support to employees and the community.

On the eight-minute drive to the shopping center, Nancy Barrera said she spoke with her teenage son and daughter about how shootings can happen everywhere and they must stay alert.

“It’s hard to come back here today, but we must,” she said. “We have to support all the employees because if we don’t come, they could lose their job and it’s not their fault what happened here that day.”

‘A difficult day’

Scores of volunteers flocked to the mall with gift baskets and even pizza. Katelyn Reed, 34, a teacher at Allen High School, recruited hundreds of teachers, families and churches to assemble and deliver gift baskets to ease employees’ return to work.

One volunteer, Karla Escobar, who frequently shops at the outlets, delivered baskets to two stores she visits most often: Victoria’s Secret and Forever 21. Inside were bottled water, cheddar popcorn, pretzels, soda, crackers and other goodies.

“I put myself in the place of the workers and I imagine that it must be a difficult day,” said Escobar, who lives in McKinney.

After dropping off a basket at Forever 21, Escobar said employees hugged her and thanked her for her kindness. “They did not expect this at all. They were very thankful,” she said.

Lee Garcia, who works at Oakley, a sunglasses store at Fort Worth’s Hulen Mall, had considered calling staff in Allen to check on them. Instead, Garcia and two co-workers decided to drive to Allen with pizzas.

“It can be traumatizing for people, so we wanted to just stop by and show our support,” Garcia said.

For Garcia, one of the most difficult parts of this ordeal is a single, devastating fact: Change seems unlikely, if not impossible.

“It’s just the world we live in,” he said. “But what are we supposed to do? We’ve still got to work, get groceries, shop. … We just have to keep living life.”