The swarm of teenagers milling around the Village at Sandhill on Saturday evening was "alarming," but Monica Elkins-Johnson continued into Blue Fin Seafood Restaurant and Bar to meet a friend for dinner.
However, dinner was interrupted when the area outside the businesses erupted into chaos.
"I saw a huge amount of students just running," said Elkins-Johnson, who is a member of the Richland 2school board. "They were running from the back of the movie theater to Blue Fin. They were running across the street, jumping over cars, running into cars."
Minutes later, teenagers began fighting in front of Elkins-Johnson, who was sitting on the restaurant's patio. That's when the educator of more than 20 years jumped into action to try to break up the fight. A server at the restaurant jumped over the patio railing to help, Elkins-Johnson said.
"I began to gather up the teenagers that appeared to be afraid and unclear as to what was actually going on," she said.
There's been no word or estimate on how many teenagers were at the shopping center to fight or watch the fight. In a Facebook post Sunday recalling the events, Elkins-Johnson said there were "hundreds" of teens mingling around the shopping center before the chaos.
The former teacher and principal comforted the young people she corralled and questioned them about the mayhem unfolding at the shopping center located in the northeast area of Richland County.
"They shared with me that there was a Facebook post that stated there were going to be multiple fights at Sandhill at 8," she said. "They were coming to see the fights."
Deputies began receiving calls around 7:30 p.m. Saturday that included disrupting traffic, fighting and shots fired, Richland County Sheriff's Department spokeswoman Capt. Maria Yturria said.
When deputies — followed by a camera crew from the popular A&E show "LivePD" — arrived, they found a large group of teens hanging around, Yturria said. The teens ran off in different directions, and no arrests were made.
Deputies couldn't find anyone who had been shot, Yturria said. The investigation into the incident is ongoing.
Spokespeople for the Village at Sandhill declined to comment on the fights, but said the mall's curfew is 6 p.m. for children under 16. The curfew is enforced by Sandhill security officers.
Two employees of Blue Fin — manager and bartender Lauren Cordier and server Michael Alex Carter — tried to encourage the large group of teens outside the restaurant to disperse, Cordier said.
"It seemed like something was about to happen," she said. "One kid came after another and hit him in the back of the head."
Several other males began attacking the victim, Cordier said. Some of the assailants scrambled, and Carter helped break up the assault.
As Elkins-Johnson contacted some of the children's parents, she said she warned them about the dangers of going to events like the scheduled fight.
"You don't run to fights; you run away from fights," she recalled telling them. "A bullet does not have a name on it."
Some of the youths had been at the shopping center several hours without eating or drinking, and Elkins-Johnson said she ordered food and beverages from Blue Fin for several of them, which Cordier confirmed.
A few of the parents Elkins-Johnson spoke with Saturday night said they weren't aware their kids were going to the mall to watch a fight, she said. She talked with them about the mall's curfew for young patrons and advised them to get the password for their child's social media accounts and check the accounts weekly.
As Richland County investigators continue trying to learn more about the melee, one deputy, Lt. Phil Tessier, has came under fire for social media comments about the incident, calling the kids who showed up to watch the fights "animals."
"Going to the Village at Sandhill's (sic) to watch fights, that is gang and thug mentality," commented Tessier, who's been with the sheriff's department for nearly 20 years.
A commenter replied, "This is your attitude as a law enforcement officer? Animals?? Thugs?? I am sick."
The comments have since been deleted.
Yturria said the department took "appropriate disciplinary action," in regards to Tessier's comments.
"One thing I don't agree to is disrespecting our teenagers," Elkins-Johnson said. "I believe in my teenagers and that we do have more doing the right things than we do that's not following the policy and procedures."
Some of the kids Elkins-Johnson interacted with Saturday night extended an invite to their graduation ceremonies Monday — "not realizing that I would be there anyway as a school board member," she wrote in her Facebook post about the ordeal, which has been shared more than 800 times as of Tuesday.
The school board member hugged some of those kids Monday as they walked across the stage at Colonial Life Arena.
"We could have had a funeral," she said, "but I was able to celebrate a graduation with them."