The reason was a phone call made to the Wal-Mart switchboard about 8 p.m. from a person who said there was a bomb in the store, said manager Kenny Walton. He said he didn't know the sex of the caller, but Danville Assistant Police Chief Tom Bustle later said it was a female voice.
"We called the Danville Police Department, and they and the Danville Fire Department and the (Boyle County) Emergency Medical Services were here in short order," said Walton.
In the meantime, Walton ordered an evacuation - an order that Bustle said was the "store's call" - and over the intercom he instructed what he estimated to be more than 500 shoppers and 100 employees to leave the store.
Curtis Brown, an employee in the automotive supplies department, said, while waiting in a car in the parking lot during the evacuation, that the message to shoppers and employees was: "Attention associates and customers. Due to circumstances beyond our control, we are asking all customers and associates to come to the front of the store and leave in an orderly fashion."
Brown said the vast majority of shoppers and employees heeded the call.
"There was no panic. Just about all the customers stopped shopping, left their baskets and walked, some at a faster pace than others, to the front of the store and started leaving through the exit doors," he said. "But there were a few people who just kept on shopping until they were told to leave."
A "little stampede in slow motion"
A shopper, Misty Llamas of Danville, described the evacuation as a "little stampede in slow motion."
"I was kind of scared, and I think other people were, too," she said, after returning to the shopping cart she and her friend, Kelvin Kinely, were using to load up on Christmas gifts and resuming their shopping. "It was kind of weird that, all at the same time, hundreds of shoppers and employees stopped what they were doing and started heading to the exits."
Shortly after they arrived, Danville police cruisers, Danville fire trucks and Boyle EMS ambulances parked in a corner of the Wal-Mart parking lot. Hundreds of vehicles - containing customers and employees waiting for the store to reopen, many with their engines running to keep warm in the cold weather - filled about half of the rest of the lot.
Assistant Chief Bustle and several police and fire personnel then joined Walton and some assistant store managers in what Bustle described as a "walk-through" of the store.
"We checked out the whole store and didn't find anything that looked out of place or otherwise suspicious," said Bustle of the 45-minute process. Bustle and Walton agreed that the store was secure and safe enough to be reopened.
"In situations involving businesses, we will make a recommendation about evacutations, but we leave it to them to make the decision to evacuate or not," Bustle said. "We plan our investigation and our security around what they decide."
After the store reopened, several shoppers returned to their shopping carts and resumed shopping, but many others apparently decided not to come back to the store, leaving scores of unattended carts, many of them full of merchandise, all over the store.
"I decided to wait out in the parking lot in my car until we could come back in," said Jerry Gullette of Garrard County, finding his cart where he had left it. "I didn't really know what was going on, just that we were supposed to leave.
"Oh, it was a bomb threat? Wow," said Gullette, when told by a reporter the reason for the evacuation. "Well, if I had known that, I may have just gone on home."
His only concern was melting ice cream
Gullette's only concern while he was waiting for the store to reopen was the condition of a large container of Neopolitan ice cream in his cart. The ice cream had started to melt, but Gullette was able to get another one.
The effect of room temperatures in the store on chilled and frozen foods and other perishable items during the 45-minute evacuation was the top concern voiced by Walton during a talk he had with employees in the produce section after the store reopened.
He commended the employees for their dilligence and professionalism in assisting with the evacuation and "getting everybody, including yourselves and your co-workers, out of the store safely."
"Bomb threats are a pretty scary thing and require a quick, organized and calm as possible response," he said. "You all provided that tonight. "When I was at (a Wal-Mart in) Raleigh (N.C.), we had nine bomb threats in a row. I hope we don't have a pattern like that."
Walton then instructed several of the employees to go through all of the carts left behind by shoppers who did not return after the all-clear and dispose of all perishable items for the "sake of public health safety" and return other items to the appropriate departments.