In a sign of consumer desperation amid a bleak economy, the annual rite of retailing known as Black Friday turned chaotic and deadly, as shoppers scrambled for holiday bargains.
A Wal-Mart worker on Long Island, N.Y., died after being trampled by customers who broke through the doors early Friday, and other workers were trampled as they tried to rescue the man. At least four other people, including a woman who was eight months pregnant, were taken to hospitals.
Fights and injuries occurred elsewhere at other stores operated by Wal-Mart, the nation's leading discount chain, which is one of the few retailers thriving in the current economy.
Meanwhile, two men at a crowded Toys "R" Us in Palm Desert, Calif., pulled guns and shot each other to death after women with them brawled, witnesses said. The company released a statement late Friday saying the deaths were related to a personal dispute and not Black Friday shopping.
Many other retailers appeared to have fewer customers than usual the day after Thanksgiving, typically one of the busiest shopping days of the year. Merchants call it Black Friday because in the past, it was when many retailers went into the black, or turned profitable, for the year.
It was mainly only discount chains that were bustling long before sunrise. People showed up for a small number of limited-time "door-buster" deals, such as 32-inch flat-screen televisions for $388 and Intel laptops for $499. In many cases, after an initial onslaught, crowds dwindled after the few sought-after items had sold out.
While tussles and even broken bones are common when the doors open on Black Friday, this is apparently the first time someone was killed in the stampede. For some consumer psychologists, the mad scramble was a sign of the times.
"I think it ties into a sort of fear and panic of not having enough," said Joe Priester, a professor at the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California and a former president of the Society for Consumer Psychology. A herd mentality, he said, can lead individuals to feel anonymous, so much so that they are capable of trampling someone. "Fear combined with the group mentality?" he said. "It doesn't surprise me at all."
Walter Loeb, president of Loeb Associates, a retail consultancy, said there was shopping mania at Wal-Mart every year. But this year, he said, it seems "people are becoming irrational in their actions."
That seemed the case early Friday at the Green Acres Mall in Valley Stream, on Long Island, where the Nassau County police had to be called in for crowd control about 3 a.m., and an officer with a bullhorn pleaded for order.
Tension grew as the 5 a.m. opening neared. By 4:55, with no police officers in sight, the crowd of more than 2,000 had become a rabble, and could be held back no longer. Fists banged and shoulders pressed on the sliding-glass double doors, which bowed in with the weight of the assault.
Witnesses and the police said the doors shattered, and the shrieking mob surged through in a rush for holiday bargains. One worker, Jdimytai Damour, 34, of Queens, was thrown back onto the black linoleum tiles and trampled in the stampede that streamed over and around him.
Some workers fought their way through the surge to get to Damour, but he had been fatally injured, police said. Damour, a temporary worker hired for the holiday season, was pronounced dead an hour later at Franklin Hospital Medical Center in Valley Stream.
Four other people, including a 28-year-old woman described as eight months pregnant, were treated at the hospital for minor injuries.
Detective Lt. Michael Fleming, who is in charge of the investigation for the Nassau County police, called the scene "utter chaos" and said the "crowd was out of control." As for those who had run over the victim, criminal charges were possible, the lieutenant said. "I've heard other people call this an accident, but it is not," he said. "Certainly it was a foreseeable act."
But even with videos from the store's surveillance cameras and the accounts of witnesses, Fleming and other officials acknowledged that it would be difficult to identify those responsible, let alone to prove culpability.
Some shoppers who had seen the stampede said they were shocked. One, Kimberly Cribbs of Queens, said the crowd had acted like "savages." Shoppers' behavior was bad even as the store was being cleared, she recalled.
"When they were saying they had to leave, that an employee got killed, people were yelling, 'I've been on line since yesterday morning,' " Cribbs said. "They kept shopping."
Outbreaks weren't restricted to New York. At a Wal-Mart in Columbus, Ohio, Nikki Nicely, 19, jumped onto a man's back and pounded his shoulders when he tried to take a 40-inch Samsung flat-screen TV to which she had laid claim. "That's my TV!" Nicely, 19, shouted. "That's my TV!"
A police officer and security guard intervened, but not before Nicely took an elbow in the face. In the end, she was the one with the $798 television, marked down from $1,000. "That's right," she cried as her adversary walked away. "This here is my TV!"
Charisma Booker, also on the hunt for a TV, said she had been shopping at Wal-Mart every Black Friday for nearly a decade. "There are fewer people here this year, but they're more aggressive," she said. "I've never seen anybody fight like this. This is crazy."
At a Wal-Mart in Niles, Ill., a mother fought back tears when she discovered someone had taken her cart filled with toys.
Many retailers opened earlier this year and offered the biggest discounts in their history.
Certainly Wal-Mart was not the only retailer with aggressive Black Friday shoppers. But before Best Buy opened at 5 a.m., shoppers lined up to receive tickets for merchandise they intended to buy, reducing the need to elbow one another to pick up electronic devices.
Chuck O'Donnell, district-services manager for Best Buy stores in New Jersey, said the lines "went all the way around the building, just like in years past."
Critics of Wal-Mart said the retailer had been negligent about security.
"They have problems with crowds every year, and inevitability, people get hurt," said David Nassar of Wal-Mart Watch, a union-financed group. "They should expect to plan properly for this kind of a problem and have adequate security in place, and they don't."
Wal-Mart officials said the safety of customers and workers was their "top priority" and the company's "thoughts and prayers go out to the families of those impacted."
Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.