When the man wearing a gas mask appeared at the post-midnight showing of the latest Batman movie, many in the Aurora, Colo., audience thought it was just the kind of thing you would expect from a fan coming to see “The Dark Knight Rises.”
But all of that changed within moments as a canister exploded and the ominous sound, like firecrackers, erupted, witnesses said.
“It was 20 to 30 minutes into the movie,” Tanner Coon told reporters in an interview broadcast on MSNBC. “I saw a canister trailing some smoke; I thought it was a prank. I heard some pops like fireworks and then realized it was gunshots. I told my friends to get on the ground.
“There was a pause where I assumed he was reloading the magazine,” Coon said. “Then there was shooting again and everyone raced to the exit.”
It was a smoky, surreal scene, witnesses reported, as movie-goers, some wearing their own costumes, slowly realized that bullets were flying from the weapon of the man in body armor whose face was hidden by a gas mask.
“There were bullet [casings] just falling on my head. They were burning my forehead,” Jennifer Seeger told reporters afterward. “Every few seconds it was just: Boom, boom, boom,” she said. “He would reload and shoot and anyone who would try to leave would just get killed.”
Sharon Segura was in the theater next door when the shooting started. Suddenly, half-dollar-sized bullet holes appeared in the wall shared between the two theaters, she told NBC.
“The alarms had gone off” and people began scrambling for the exits. “We tried to exit through the front door,” she said, but theater-goers were told: “Don’t go that way, there’s someone out there.”
The crowd then tried to exit through the lobby doors. Once again, they were turned back. “Everyone was basically standing around,” she said. Finally, someone realized that the door to the projection room was open, leading to an exit.
On her way out, Segura said she saw fallen victims, including a young woman -- she appeared to be about 16 years old -- who had been shot in the face, and another woman who had been shot in the lower back.
“Everyone was in shock,” she said.
After the shooting, the chaos spread as first-responders moved through the theater seeking to help the wounded and to sort out the dead. At least 10 bodies remained in the movie house through the morning hours.
One police officer was seen carrying a girl of about 9 years old. “She wasn’t moving,” a witness told reporters. Other officers rushed many of the wounded to hospitals in their patrol cars.
One eyewitness, who asked not to be named, told the Los Angeles Times that there was an image that he can’t erase. After the shooting started, the witness said, he saw a man two seats over shot in the head.
The victim was wearing a shirt with the face of the Joker --a Batman villain -- on it, and after he was shot, he slumped back in his chair, his face covered in blood., the witness said.