AURORA, Colo. -- In an instant, midnight moviegoers who had walked into a theater here for a dark fantasy were confronting a real-life horror.
In a piercingly familiar drama that has terrorized places such as Columbine, Virginia Tech and Fort Hood, innocent moviegoers -- one victim was just a few months old -- were shot as they sat, gunned down as they frantically tried to escape. Spent shell casings and the smell of gunpowder and some sort of gas arced through the air, according to witnesses. Bullets pierced walls in an adjoining theater.
People who had just minutes earlier tweeted in joy and anticipation of the premier of the Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises, were crawling, running and hiding for their lives.
These were the incomprehensible scenes that police say were perpetrated by a lone gunman wearing a gas mask, a helmet and head-to-toe body armor. Dressed in solid black, he walked deliberately into a crowded suburban Denver movie theater from a rear door and methodically opened fire, killing 12 and wounding at least 59, police said. Authorities identified the suspect as James Holmes, a 24-year-old student from San Diego who had dropped out of a doctoral program at the University of Colorado medical school last month.
The nation once again stopped on what would have been just another hot summer day to absorb wrenching scenes playing out on television screens and coursing through social media. Bloodied victims. Yellow police tape. Quivering bystanders. Sobbing relatives. Sober-faced law enforcement authorities. And a president putting politics on hold to speak about America's collective grief.
In Aurora, police on Friday were scouring dual crime scenes, just 4 miles apart.
As a helicopter circled above, police tape snapped in the wind as people who left their cars in the lots last night tried to retrieve their vehicles. Each person retrieving their car was given a ride to it by a uniformed police officer, who then escorted them back out of the area. An adjacent parking area was crammed with network and international TV equipment. Inside the theater, police were busy with the grim task of analyzing the bloody crime scene and, eventually, identifying the victims. Police have not yet notified the families of the victims.
Just a few miles away on this otherwise bright and sunny day, heavily armed police and FBI agents in gas masks cordoned off the area and evacuated five buildings. Aurora Deputy Fire Chief Chris Henderson said the suspect's third-floor apartment was "extensively" booby-trapped, with numerous bottles connected with wires or cord arranged in the front room, along with other unknown devices or items. Police said investigators from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, with the help of a robot, were assessing and then trying to disarm what appeared to be incendiary devices.
Firefighters stood with hoses ready outside the three-story red brick building. Multiple ambulances were on the scene, and police officers were sporting military-style helmets.
Biology student Kaitlyn Fonzi, who lives below Holmes, says loud techno music began playing in his apartment promptly at midnight.
Against the advice of her boyfriend, Fonzi says she went up and banged on the door, but no one answered. She said she called police to report the loud music, which was playing on a loop and stopped at exactly 1 a.m., she says.
Fonzi says they went to sleep but were awakened by a SWAT team breaking down doors and ordering everyone out. It was 2 a.m.
Fonzi says she has seen Holmes around few times, and that he looks like any other student on the medical and academic campus across the street from their apartment.
"You never really think anything like this is going to happen," Fonzi says while standing outside her cordoned-off building, still in her pajamas.
Cynthia Moran, 53, who also lives in the complex, said she was awakened at about 5:30 a.m. by frantic calls from family when they realized she lived close to the suspect.
"Scary," she said.
'I don't know how I'm still alive'
Inside the theater early Friday morning, some witnesses -- immersed in the on-screen action -- initially believed the assailant was simply a planned element of the night's exciting premiere.
Jennifer Seeger, 22, and Corbin Gates, 23, childhood friends who work at a local AT&;T service center, arrived late to the movie and were seated in the front. They told USA TODAY that about 20 minutes into the midnight showing, they noticed a man dressed in a SWAT-like uniform approaching from the right side of the screen. They initially thought it was part of the show.
But as the shooter approached to what they said was within 3 or 4 feet of them, shell casings started flying around them, and Seeger told NBC that she could feel the heat and smell the gunpowder.
"All you heard was mass chaos and people screaming," she said, adding that the gunman -- whom Seeger described as at least 6 feet tall, lean and muscular -- did not say anything.
Witnesses said he was a methodical killer.
Gates told USA TODAY that the gunman initially shot into the ceiling, then began aiming at people.
"I don't know how I'm still alive," he said. "The theater was packed. There were a lot of families with young kids and teenagers."
Seeger said she "literally dove into the aisle. He started shooting people right behind me," she said. "I told people to pretend they were dead."
She told NBC: "Every few seconds it was just: Boom, boom, boom. He would reload and shoot anyone who would try to leave."
In an adjacent theater, 18-year-old Joseph Soto, of Aurora, said patrons were first confused because the shots came just as gunfire was erupting on the big screen. But rounds from the adjacent theater, No.9, started piercing the wall of theater No.8.
"We found out it wasn't a joke," Soto said.
Soto said theater staff ushered patrons out a side door, warning them to not go out the theater's main entrance. A "relatively calm" evacuation, considering the circumstances, he said.
A federal law enforcement official told USA TODAY that it is believed that the suspect purchased a ticket for the show, and once inside the theater propped open the emergency exit door, which he later entered after retrieving four weapons and a tear gas canister.
The official, who is not authorized to comment publicly, said the suspect then tossed the canister into the crowd and began firing.
Hayden Miller said he heard several of the shots.
"Like little explosions going on, and shortly after that we heard people screaming," he said. He described "people hunched over, leaving the theater."
At a news conference Friday afternoon, officials said Holmes was taken into custody just minutes after police received word of the massacre -- "about a minute or a minute and a half" later, according to Aurora Police Chief Dan Oates.
He said the suspect was armed with one AR-15 assault rifle, a Remington 870 shotgun, and two 40-caliber Glock handguns. No motive for the shooting was given.
The federal law enforcement official said the four weapons were purchased within the past six months at Denver and Aurora-area gun shops. The assault rifle was traced to a Gander Mountain gun store in Thornton, Colo., the Remington shotgun and one of the Glock handguns were bought at a Bass Pro Shop in Denver, and the second Glock handgun was purchased at Gander Mountain store in Aurora.
The official also said a cache of ammunition was recovered in the suspect's car, and used magazines were found discarded in the movie theater.
New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, who had been in contact with Aurora authorities, said at a news conference Friday that the shooter had dyed his hair red and called himself "The Joker," Batman's arch-villain. Oates offered no confirmation of this assertion.
A shocked nation
Across social media and, of course, face to face, Americans reacted with an incredulity that has become all-too-familiar after mass shootings.
Jackie Mitchell, 45, said he shared a beer and a table at the nearby Zephyr Lounge with Holmes on Tuesday afternoon. Mitchell, a furniture mover, said he'd seen Holmes several times in the bar.
"He'd walk in, order a beer and go sit on the patio by himself." Mitchell said. "He seemed like a real educated dude."
Mitchell said he and Holmes chatted about football on Tuesday. Mitchell said news that Holmes was the suspect stunned him.
"I don't got no hair, and what little I do (have) stood up," Mitchell said.
Some movie theaters around the country planned to beef up security in the wake of Friday's shooting. President Obama called for "prayer and reflection," and the White House later ordered flags at public buildings to be flown at half-staff through Wednesday in honor of the victims.
"We may never understand what leads anybody to terrorize their fellow human beings like this," the president said during a previously schedule campaign stop in Fort Myers, Fla. "Such violence, such evil is senseless -- it's beyond reason."
"We are praying for the families and loved ones of the victims during this time of deep shock and immense grief," Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney said from Boston. "We expect that the person responsible for this terrible crime will be quickly brought to justice."
A 'horrific scene'
Denver hospitals began handling the wounded within minutes of the 12:35 a.m. shooting.
Dr. Comilla Sasson was not supposed to work at the University of Colorado Hospital but was called in to replace another physician. She described a "most horrific scene" of victims, some in critical condition, ranging in age from 3 months to 45 years.
A Red Cross spokesperson in Colorado advised residents in the Aurora area to update their Facebook and other social-media accounts to reassure friends and relatives that they are safe in the wake of the shooting.
"Help alleviate that anxiety," Patricia Billinger said.
News of the Aurora tragedy began to spread on Twitter and other social-media sites as early as 3 a.m. ET Friday, a testament to the growing power of the digital medium during a big news event.
Witnesses such as Zach Eastman and Isaac Ramos tweeted within minutes of each other that a shooting had taken place and that their auditorium and the theater had been evacuated. Minutes later, the first details came in, with some tweeting that they saw smoke and then shots. Others said they saw a bloody shooter taken into custody.
As time went on, several witnesses as well people across Aurora began tweeting that they were either safe, wounded, or looking for friends who were not accounted for. By late morning Friday, tweets about possible victims and messages of condolences flooded social-media sites.
On Twitter, topics related to the shooting -- Aurora, Theater Shooting, Columbine -- trended for hours.
A tearful Kimberly Sinkiewicz, 22, said Friday morning she had not heard from a friend since she posted a Facebook status that she was on the way to the movie.
"She's not answering her phone, no texts," Sinkiewicz wrote.
Sinkiewicz said she registered the friend's name on the Red Cross's Safe and Well site, hoping for an update.
The much-anticipated The Dark Night Rises opened Thursday night around the country. But after the Aurora shooting, the Hollywood Reporter quoted Warner Bros. as canceling its red-carpet premiere for Friday night in Paris.
Warner Bros. issued this statement: "Warner Brothers is deeply saddened to learn about this shocking incident. We extend our sincere sympathies to the families and loved ones of the victims at this tragic time."
Who would do this?
As the hours ticked by Friday afternoon, the names and faces of the victims began trickling in.
The dead included a young sports blogger, Jessica Redfield, 24, who had witnessed -- and written about -- the aftermath of another shooting in Toronto last month. The wounded included a young woman from Baton Rogue who had just returned from missionary work in Haiti. Bonnie Kate Pourciau was shot in the knee and was in surgery Friday morning, according to a relative, Clint Gardner, of Brookhaven, Miss.
Redfield, a National Hockey League blogger based in Denver, had been on the scene of another mass shooting at the Eaton Centre in Toronto in June, after which she wrote this on her personal blog:
"I can't get this odd feeling out of my chest. This empty, almost sickening feeling won't go away. I noticed this feeling when I was in the Eaton Centre in Toronto just seconds before someone opened fire in the food court. An odd feeling which led me to go outside and unknowingly out of harm's way. It's hard for me to wrap my mind around how a weird feeling saved me from being in the middle of a deadly shooting."
Before the movie in Aurora, Redfield tweeted to friends: "Movie doesn't start for 20 minutes."
In her blog post after the Toronto shooting, she had struggled with the same imponderables facing the survivors and witnesses in Aurora.
"Who would go into a mall full of thousands of innocent people and open fire?" she wrote. "Is this really the world we live in?"
By Chuck Raasch, Trevor Hughes and Gary Strauss