Much as Christina Blache loves comic books, the reason she attended the midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises was because Alex ‘Sully’ Sullivan persuaded her and nine of their Red Robin restaurant coworkers to join him. A superhero junkie, Sullivan even coaxed Blache, his boss, to meet him outside the Century 16 multiplex in Aurora, Colo., at 5:30 p.m. on July 19 so they could get primo seats. Killing time with video games until the doors opened at 7:00, they secured a block of center seats about 10 rows from the screen. As showtime neared, Sullivan happily tweeted, “One hour till movie and it’s going to be the best BIRTHDAY ever.” His gathered friends had no idea Sullivan had turned 27 that day. “He didn’t tell any of us that was why we were there,” says Blache, 29. “He was just a modest guy.” About 20 minutes into the film, Blache heard a faint noise. “If you’ve ever thrown a paper airplane,” she says, “you know the sound: whissh.”
It would prove the whissh heard round the world. As a smoky haze filled packed Theater 9, a man clad in ballistic gear, complete with a black helmet, body armor, shin guards and a gas mask, opened fire, spraying the terrified crowd with rounds from a shotgun, a .40-caliber semiautomatic pistol and an AR-15 assault rifle, which jammed. “Pop! Pop! Pop! Then the next thing you hear is, ‘I’m hit! I’m hit!'” recalls Blache, who served in the Air Force in Iraq, working with computer systems. “There was blood everywhere. I saw blood squirting out of my leg.” And when she turned her head? She saw Sullivan lying facedown, blood pouring out of his head.
The savage rampage, one of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history, claimed 12 lives, among them Sullivan’s, and injured 58 others, 11 critically. As police quickly arrested James Holmes, 24, a recent doctoral-program dropout (see box, page 58), millions of numb Americans were left to wonder where, if not a movie theater-that democratic refuge from life’s hardships shared by all, no matter their age, religion or ethnicity-they could feel safe. “This is MY COMMUNITY!” blogged Cody Hickman, who exited neighboring Theater 8, also penetrated by the bullets, with his hands raised as SWAT police rushed in. “The helplessness of knowing that I will never be able to keep my family completely safe is paralyzing.”
Yet in the heat of the attack, many moviegoers pushed through their fear to make their way to safety. “When you hear about things like Columbine [the 1999 high school massacre in nearby Littleton], you wonder, ‘How would I cope?'” says Stephen Barton, 22. “I decided, ‘Now is not the time to die.'” After he felt his left arm go limp, he escaped Theater 9 and asked a group of strangers, “Where am I wounded?” They confirmed a neck wound and offered encouragement. “This incident has shown us the worst of humanity,” Barton says. “But it definitely has shown us the best as well.”
In some cases, people sacrificed their lives to shield loved ones. Alex Teves, 24, took a fatal bullet to protect his girlfriend Amanda Lindgren, 24. “I lost my first-born son,” says his dad, Tom Teves, 52. “This has got to stop.” Jonathan Blunk, 26, pushed his girlfriend Jansen Young to the ground and under a seat and then covered her exposed side with his body. When the shots stopped and Young, 21, wriggled free, she found Blunk lying in a pool of blood. “Jon did this because he loves me,” she says tearfully. “All I can think about is all the things I’m not going to be able to do with him.”
The tragedy has left others wondering whether a trip to the movie theater is worth the risk. After escaping Theater 9 unharmed, Paul Otermat, 26, accepted a free ticket to The Dark Knight Rises at a different theater. “I looked at the exit about 50 times during the movie,” he says. “But by the end, I was just watching a movie.” Naya Thompson, 21, who escaped safely, says she still really wants to see the movie, but not “anytime soon.”
As for Blache, she’s not thinking about movies, and she’s trying not to dwell on the injuries in both knees that keep her in the hospital. She says, “I’ll forgive [the shooter] some day, just not right now because of what he has done to people I care about.”