AURORA, Colo. (AP) — A man in a gas mask barged into a crowded Denver-area theater during a midnight showing of "The Dark Knight Rises" on Friday, hurled two gas canisters and then opened fire, shooting 71 people and killing 12 in one of the deadliest mass shootings in recent U.S. history.
Colorado police said 24-year-old James Holmes was wearing a full tactical suit and was armed with an AR-15 assault rifle, .12 gauge shotgun and two .40 caliber semi-automatic pistols when he walked into the theater at about 12:39 p.m. Police said he then threw two devices that released some sort of gas.
When the smoke began to spread, some moviegoers thought it was a stunt that was part of the movie. They saw a silhouette of a person in the haze near the screen, first pointing a gun at the crowd and then shooting.
"There were bullet (casings) just falling on my head. They were burning my forehead," Jennifer Seeger said, adding that the gunman, dressed like a SWAT team member, fired steadily except when he stopped to reload.
"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."
"I thought it was showmanship. I didn't think it was real," she said.
Seeger said she was in the second row, about four feet from the gunman, when he pointed a gun at her face. At first, "I was just a deer in headlights. I didn't know what to do," she said. Then she ducked to the ground as the gunman shot people seated behind her.
She said she began crawling toward an exit when she saw a girl about 14 years old "lying lifeless on the stairs." She saw a man with a bullet wound in his back and tried to check his pulse, but "I had to go. I was going to get shot."
Witness Shayla Roeder said she saw a young teenage girl on the ground bleeding outside the theater. "She just had this horrible look in her eyes .... We made eye contact and I could tell she was not all right," Roeder said.
Police, ambulances and emergency crews swarmed on the scene after frantic calls started flooding the 911 switchboard, officials said. Officers came running in and telling people to leave the theater, Salina Jordan told the Denver Post. She said some police were carrying and dragging bodies.
Officials said 10 people died in the theater and two more died later at hospitals. One person in an adjoining theater was hit but a bullet as well.
Aurora police spokesman Frank Fania on ABC's "Good Morning America" said he didn't know yet if all the injuries were gunshot wounds. He said some might have been caused by other things such as shrapnel.
The FBI said there was no indication Holmes was tied to any terrorist groups.
A spokeswoman for the University of Colorado-Denver says Holmes had been studying neuroscience in a Ph.D. program, but was in the process of withdrawing.
Meanwhile, FBI agents and police used a hook and ladder fire truck to reach Holmes' apartment in Aurora, police Chief Dan Oates said. They put a camera at the end of a 12-foot pole inside the apartment, and discovered that the unit was booby trapped. Authorities evacuated five buildings as they tried to determine how to disarm flammable and explosive material.
Victims were being treated for chemical exposure apparently related to canisters thrown by the gunman. Some of those injured are children, including a 4-month-old baby who was released from the hospital.
Police released a written statement from Holmes' family: "Our hearts go out to those who were involved in this tragedy and to the families and friends of those involved."
President Barack Obama said he was saddened by the "horrific and tragic shooting," pledging that his administration was "committed to bringing whoever was responsible to justice, ensuring the safety of our people, and caring for those who have been wounded."
It was the worst mass shooting in the U.S. since the Nov. 5, 2009 attack at Fort Hood, Texas, when an Army psychiatrist killed 13 soldiers and civilians and more than two dozen others wounded.
In Colorado, it was the deadliest since the Columbine High School massacre on April 20, 1999, when two students opened fire at the school in the Denver suburb of Littleton, killing 12 classmates and a teacher and wounding 26 others before killing themselves.
The mall in Aurora, the state's third-largest city, has been the scene of violence before.
In July 2001, two men were shot and wounded inside the mall following an argument. In June 2005, a woman was killed and her boyfriend and a bystander were wounded following an argument inside the mall. Two men were arrested in that case, at least one of whom was sentenced to life in prison.
The movie is the final installment of the "Dark Knight" trilogy directed by Christopher Nolan, starring Christian Bale as Batman. The series has a darker tone than previous Batman incarnations. It is the follow-up to "The Dark Knight," which won Heath Ledger a posthumous Oscar for his searing portrayal of The Joker.
The film has several scenes of public mayhem — a hallmark of superhero movies. In one scene, the main villain Bane leads an attack on the stock exchange and, in another, leads a shooting and bombing rampage on a packed football stadium.
E! News reported on Friday that Warner Brothers pulled a trailer from the start of the film indefinitely. The trailer for "Gangster Squad" starring Ryan Gosling and Sean Penn featured a clip depicting armed men opening fire inside a crowded movie theater.
"The Dark Knight Rises" opened across the world Friday with midnight showings in the U.S. The shooting prompted officials to cancel the Paris premiere, with workers pulling down the red carpet display at a theater on the famed Champs-Elysees Avenue.
"Warner Bros. and the filmmakers are 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," the studio said.
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