EAST RUTHERFORD — American Dream was locked down Thursday evening after gunshots rang out, leaving a man injured and creating chaos at the massive shopping and entertainment complex that separated parents from their children as patrons ran to safety.
The shots were heard inside the mall just before 6 pm and police locked down the mall shortly thereafter. New Jersey State Police reported that one man was shot and taken to an area hospital with serious injuries.
State police said that their preliminary investigation revealed that there was only one suspect who shot the victim around 5:50 pm and called it “an isolated incident.”
“There is no threat to the public and the incident remains under investigation,” state police said late Thursday night.
A little after 8 pm, state police had reported that it was not an active shooter situation.
It “has been determined to not be an active shooter,” New Jersey State Police tweeted at 8:20 pm “The mall is secure & troopers are in the process of safely removing patrons. … The American Dream will remain closed.”
State police said the mall plans to reopen on Friday.
Isabella O’Malley, 23, was on the third floor of the mall with her mother and younger brother when she said they heard two shots.
“At first we didn’t think it was gunfire, but then we saw people running and we knew something was wrong,” O’Malley said.
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She said they tried to run into a store, only to find that stores were beginning to close their gates. Instead, they ran down the escalators to the bottom floor. When they got to the parking garage, police were already there telling shoppers to get in their cars and leave.
Shoppers who were evacuated from the mall were waiting in the parking garage to reunite with their families who were on lockdown on the other side of the complex in the theme parks.
“Anyone looking to reunite with any family members, please go to Lot 26,” state police said.
Theodore Allen of Virginia, who was in the mall when the incident occurred, said of his family: “I think they are still stuck in the water park. I can’t get there because they will not let me. So I am just sitting here waiting.”
Tony Smith of Virginia, who was in lockdown in the theme park and is Allen’s father, said via cellphone: “I guess they are letting sections out one at a time, which is dumb because you have kids over there and parents over here. So everyone is separated.”
Smith said he was looking after a 10-year-old boy who became separated from his mother and did not know where she was.
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Allen was shopping in Spencer’s while his family was in the water park and heard a loud bang reverberate from the center of the shopping complex, near the food court.
“I heard people saying it was firecrackers, so I didn’t think anything of it” at the time, Allen said. When he checked the area, he saw what looked like pieces of the firecrackers on the ground and assumed it was just a prank.
“But, later on,” he said, “I saw people rushing out.”
Govt. Phil Murphy tweeted Thursday night thanking the police for their response. “Thank you for our brave @NJSP Troopers and law enforcement professionals on the scene at the American Dream Mall. We are incredibly grateful for your swift response.”
Thursday’s incident is the latest in a long, troubled history for a mall that was decades in the making.
The idea of a megamall was first floated in 1996, with heavy construction beginning in 2005 under the name Xanadu. The original multicolored structure became an eyesore along Route 3, a symbol of a seemingly failed project.
Many lawsuits and several owners later, the American Dream mall finally opened in the fall of 2019 with theme parks, boutique and chain stores, and restaurants.
Then, just months later, the COVID pandemic hit, dealing with the project another blow.
In September 2021, a fire broke out in the 16-story, 180,000-square-foot ski and snowboard park that has kept the attraction closed since.
On the Big Snow website, a note indicates the attraction is expecting to reopen on Memorial Day weekend.
Nicholas Katzban is a breaking news reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to all the major news happening in North Jersey, subscribe here. To get breaking news directly to your inbox, sign up for our newsletter.