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Some shoppers who were inside Citrus Park Town Center when gunfire erupted Monday evening said they feared it was an active shooter.
Madison Massero and Anna Phillips, both 14, grabbed hands as they were led into a back room of the H&M store they were shopping at the mall.
"People were coming in there and crying," said Massero. "We didn't know what was happening outside of those doors that we were in."
The shooting inside the mall left several shoppers shaken up. Many remain on high alert following the recent terror attacks in France and Mali.
"We were just hoping that God was going to protect us," said Phillips. "And everybody."
Hillsborough County deputies determined the shooter was a shoplifter trying to get away from a clerk he'd taken a gold necklace from.
But deputies told FOX 13 they go into an active shooter situation as if it's the "big one."
"The whole goal at that time is to get in there, find the individual that is causing the harm, and stopping the harm to citizens," said Maj. Alan Hill, of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.
In early November, deputies conducted a training exercise at the Brandon Mall. They practiced weeding out who is under attack, from who is doing the attacking.
"We are going to walk past injured individuals, we are going to walk past people screaming," Hill said.
They push through doors, clear rooms, and watch every angle. Malls have places to hide and trouble can come from high up.
"It's very chaotic," said Hill. "You have to be very quick on your feet. Is there anybody that is running at you that is armed?"
After about ten minutes, Massero and Phillips said they got out through a back door of the mall.
Their parents didn't realize anyone fired a gun until the teens texted to say they were OK.
"At that point, I was shaking," said Phillips' mother, Laura. "I walked out of BJ's, she came from the right side, near Penney's, and we met in the parking lot and I just, I ran to her."
Deputies said they are still looking for a key tip in identifying the shooter and jewelry thief.
The suspect is described as a white male between 20 and 25 years old, and between 6 feet and 6 feet 3 inches tall. He has brown hair and was wearing eye glasses.
No one was hurt during the incident.
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