AURORA, Colo.-Early Friday morning at a midnight screening of the latest Batman film, a movie theater near Denver turned into a horrifying crime scene, as a gunman opened fire killing 12 and wounding at least 50.
According to witnesses, The Dark Knight Rises (see review) had just begun in theater 9 at the Aurora Century 16 when the emergency exit door near the screen opened and something small that looked like a bat was tossed into the theater and exploded. As the object began spewing gas, moviegoers heard what sounded like fireworks. Because of the nature of the Batman series, a lot of those in attendance thought it was just part of the show, or some fans making a scene. But when people started screaming, they realized it was no prank, but real tear gas and real gunfire.
The gunman, covered from head to toe in black and wearing a gas mask, began randomly shooting people in the audience. A cell phone video posted online recorded during mayhem shows people running out of the theater entrance, some covered in blood and some in Batman costumes (see video clip below).
The number of wounded overwhelmed six area hospital emergency rooms, as they arrived in personal vehicles, police cars, and ambulances. The death toll could rise, with many victims remaining in critical condition Friday morning.
Federal law enforcement officials took a suspect into custody, identifying him as 24-year- old James Holmes. Captured with an assault rifle, shotgun, and two pistols, Holmes told police he also had explosives in his apartment.
Aurora Police Chief Dan Oates announced that Holmes' third-floor apartment appeared to be sophisticatedly booby-trapped. Five nearby apartment buildings were evacuated as the FBI and the Aurora police and fire departments worked to disarm the suspect's apartment.
Reaction to the tragedy spread across the country and around the world. Warner Bros. canceled Friday's Paris premiere of The Dark Knight Rises, while President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney called off campaign events for the day and discontinued all Colorado campaign ads. On the social media front, Twitter lit up with numerous condolences using the hashtag #theatershooting.
The shooting follows several other recent tragedies in Colorado. Just three weeks ago an off-duty police officer, single-mother Celena Hollis, was shot dead while trying to break up a fight at the Denver City Park Jazz Festival. Several other bullets sent hundreds running for their lives. Dozens of Colorado wildfires have burned entire communities and thousands of acres to the ground, costing few lives but claiming hundreds of thousands of dollars in property damage (see "Winning against wildfires," WORLD, July 28, posted July 13). And who could forget the tragedy the state faced 13 years ago when two Columbine High School students opened fire, killing 13 and injuring dozens more?
My family often goes to the movies at the Century Aurora 16. In March, I took my 15-year-old triplets and their friends to see a midnight premiere of The Hunger Games. We were so excited, we arrived at the theater an hour-and-a-half early to wait in line. My teenagers and I enjoy going to midnight showings and were eagerly looking forward to the premiere of The Dark Knight Rises on Thursday evening. But for some unknown reason, we did not go.
My son, who has been glued to the TV watching reports, asked, "What if we would have been there, Mom? That could have been us."
Yes, indeed. What if? Lord have mercy.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.
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"Nightmare and narrow escapes: For victims of Colorado theater shooting, the early minutes of watching The Dark Knight Rises held both" | By Ruth Gibson | WORLD, Aug. 11 (posted July 27)
"Healing opportunities: Colorado shooting victim's family courageously faces a 'double-whammy' of health issues" | By Sarah Padbury | July 27
"John Stonestreet commentary: The Aurora shootings and the problem of evil" | The World and Everything in It | July 28