UNION, N.J. — After a full evacuation and an active shooter response by police, a Walmart in New Jersey has returned to normal operations. But it was hours before the store reopened, following a report of a possible gunman inside Thursday morning.
"One of the managers came around and said, 'Code brown. Everybody out of the store,'" said John Overall, a cashier at the store on Springfield Road, just off Route 22 in Union. Code brown, according to employees, is an internal code for an active shooter.
"Apparently," Overall said, "he had a mask and a gun and a white shirt. That's all I know."
Overall hadn't been the only person in the store who'd heard that.
"They mentioned someone was in here with a mask on and a weapon," said employee Angelina Rosa. "We didn't take no chances."
She followed evacuation orders promptly.
There were no reports of shots fired or injuries at the store, but as soon as the evacuation began, at around 11:30 a.m., social media started lighting up. At least one person online wrote that an armed subject was wearing a mask.
It ultimately became clear that social media may have been fueling the incident, and vice versa.
What was certain, according to an official, was that social media had sparked the incident in the first place.
"An individual shopping at Walmart saw a social media message," explained acting Union County Prosecutor Lyndsay Ruotolo.
The message had warned of a gunman seized at an unnamed Walmart elsewhere. The fictitious gunman was said to have told authorities that he had accomplices going to other Walmart stores, who would start shooting.
It was a hoax, though it worried a Union Township Walmart shopper.
"[The] shopper saw something, reported to police," the acting prosecutor said. "What they saw appears to be a toy gun that was being stolen from Walmart."
Though the claims of a gunman turned out to be unfounded, the acting prosecutor lauded the shopper that alerted police.
"I want to commend that person for being brave and speaking up," she added.
Still, the hoax kept employees locked out of the store for two hours.
It also restricted shoppers from returning for nearly four hours after they'd been evacuated. Some shoppers had to abandon their items, unable to pay for them.
It begged the question, is this the new normal?
"Sadly, yes," said Ruotolo. "But all we can do is work together to prevent tragedies, and that's what we did."
One of the evacuees acknowledged the need for taking all necessary precautions, particularly in the wake of the El Paso Walmart massacre earlier this month, in which 22 people were killed, and 24 were injured.
Still, said Sonia Tucker, an evacuated Walmart shopper here, "This cannot be the norm. We cannot live like this."
The federal Joint Terrorism Task Force has joined Union County and Union Township law enforcement in investigating the incident, as well as trying to track down who originated the hoax.
Americans have been on edge at shopping centers and other public places ever since that El Paso shooting. The gunman later admitted he was targeting Mexican shoppers.
Another shooter killed nine people in Dayton, Ohio the following day.AlertMe