(CNN) -- Dodging bullets was the last thing on their minds during a busy shopping day less than three weeks before Christmas.
Yet hundreds of shoppers and employees at the popular Westroads Mall in Omaha, Nebraska, were forced to hide or run for their lives as a gunman opened fire inside the crowded shopping center.
"I was standing around getting ready to go back to work and all of a sudden I heard this bang, bang, bang -- it sounded like someone shooting fireworks. I knew enough to know that wasn't fireworks," a mall employee told CNN affiliate KETV.
"I ran to get away from whatever was happening." Watch frightened shoppers flee the mall »
Witnesses described dozens of shots fired, most from the Von Maur store area. See photos taken inside the mall »
"All you could hear was the shots and I said 'We got to go, we got to go,' " another mall employee recalled. "I turned around and I saw the guy in the children's department. Big, tall guy, real tall, and he just stood there with his arm straight up in the air shooting and then I turned and ran." Watch a worker say she saw bodies and blood »
Renee Toney, who was working near a customer service counter, told the Omaha World-Herald the gunman was moving very fast.
A manager ordered everyone to flee to a stockroom, but she was the only one of her immediate colleagues to get inside in time.
"None of them made it out," Toney told the newspaper. "I was up front, and everybody except me was shot. It's a blur. I don't even know how I got to the stockroom. I was the closest one to the stockroom. Within seconds, they were shot right behind me."
Many people thought the gunshots were construction noise.
"We were in the center part of the mall and with all the construction going on, it sounded like nail guns and whatnot going off," said Shawn Vidlak. "But then people just started running frantically, saying there's been a shooting in there. I gathered my wife and kids and got out as soon as possible."
"It's pretty confusing because you never think it would happen around here," he said.
Many shoppers took cover in dressing rooms and bathrooms after hearing the shots.
"Going up the escalator to the second floor, stepping off the escalator, I heard loud booms," recalled Jennifer Kramer, who was in the Von Maur store with her mother.
"We started running to the back, I don't think anybody believed it was gunshots. We were hiding in a clothes rack in the back of the men's department and we heard about 35 or 40 shots."
Kramer said she was even more terrified when they stopped.
"I didn't know if he shot himself or was looking around. I just kept waiting for him to show up," she recalled.
Police said the gunman killed eight people before taking his own life, leaving behind a suicide note predicting the shootings would make him famous.
Police identified him as Robert A. Hawkins of Nebraska.
The shooting was at least the fourth at a mall or shopping center so far this year, following incidents in Salt Lake City, Utah; Kansas City, Missouri; and Douglasville, Georgia. E-mail to a friend
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