OMAHA, Neb. - It wasn't just another holiday shopper who entered the Von Maur department store at Westroads Mall and headed straight for the elevator, hunched over to conceal something clutched to his chest.

The elevator popped open on the third floor of the festive, decked-out store. Out strode Robert A. Hawkins with an AK-47-style assault rifle, poised to unleash the worst mass killing in Nebraska since 1958.

The cheerful sound of the store's piano was suddenly punctuated by the pop-pop-pop of rapid gunfire - the opening rounds of six minutes of terror.

The black-clad Hawkins started shooting at shoppers and store workers.

He circled the spacious atrium that is the high-end store's visual centerpiece, leaned over an escalator railing and, with deadly aim, shot a man in the head.

He shot people on the sales floor. He shot people around the customer-service counter and in the gift-wrapping area behind. And then, right by that counter, Hawkins shot himself.

By the time those horrific minutes had passed Wednesday afternoon, the 19-year-old later described as troubled had killed eight people, wounded five, and shattered the holiday season for a city.

"I was up front, and everybody except me was shot," said a shaken Renee Toney, a Von Maur gift wrapper who found herself at the center of the mall massacre.

All around the store and the adjoining Westroads Mall, hundreds of shoppers and workers fled in terror, ducking into back rooms or hiding among racks of clothing, fearing for their lives, saying prayers.

"I thought I would be next," said Roxanne Philip, a Von Maur customer-service worker.

The dead would include six Von Maur gift wrappers, customer-service workers and store clerks, and two customers. Five of the dead were women.

It was the deadliest single shooting incident in the state's history, by a man who said in his suicide note that he was going to be famous.

Hawkins also goes down as the biggest mass murderer in the state since Charles Starkweather killed nine in Nebraska - and 10 in all - during a days-long rampage in January 1958.

And Omaha's name is added to the long, tragic list of communities ripped and scarred by a gunman bent on mass murder.

Police yesterday were still piecing together Hawkins' movements, partly through use of the store's surveillance cameras.

Why he chose Von Maur, arguably Omaha's most elegant department store, with wide aisles and a bright, tasteful decor, remains unclear.

"It may be impossible to come up with an explanation," said Omaha Police Chief Thomas Warren.

Warren said Hawkins walked into Von Maur's south entrance without a gun, perhaps casing things out. A store security guard thought he was acting suspiciously, maybe a shoplifter.

He left the store and returned minutes later with the gun. It had two ammo clips holding 30 rounds each. He entered the south doors, turned right and headed up the elevator.

Customer Alan Mason, at a checkout counter near the elevators, saw Hawkins when the door opened on the third floor. Mason heard a popping sound and thought it was fuses blowing.

"I didn't think it was shots," he said, "because you don't think it's shots at the mall."

Then he saw the gunman.