Eyewitnesses and escapees of the theater shooting at a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colo., describe mass confusion and then terror and panicked fleeing.
The town's police chief, Dan Oates, said that witnesses "tell us [the shooter, allegedy 24-year-old James Holmes] released some sort of canister. They heard a hissing sound and some gas emerged and the gunman opened fire."
"I knew there was an issue -- well it started, there were explosions behind, but I thought it was just a normal practical joke, fireworks or something, but then I see people starting to leave the theater, smoke behind me," an eyewitness told the Associated Press, "For the first few seconds nobody was panicking, but then everyone started moving toward the exits and we were being herded to the upper area of the theater."
Donovan Tate, a theatergoer who escaped with his girlfriend, told the local CBS affiliate, "There was this one guy on all fours crawling. There was this girl spitting up blood. There were bullet holes in some people’s backs, in some people’s arms. There was one guy who was just stripped down to his boxers. It looked like he had been shot in the back or something."
Benjamin Fernandez told CBS, "I was with my younger sister and a friend, Mike, and Sheala. We decided there's something not right going on. And we got up and as soon as we walked out the door, we saw several police officers with just different guns, like shotguns. I don't even know, I've never seen cops holding guns like that.
"We walked to the left, and we just saw pretty much everything wasn't even under control at that point," Fernandez continued. "There was just people, just there was -- I saw a younger girl laying there, like with bullet wounds just bleeding, and the look in her eyes was like -- I don't know. I've had family members who have been close to death, I've been there at the hospital, and she just had that same look. It was scary."
"At first, I didn't think it was anything serious, I thought it was a joke or part of the show... he came in, he was five feet away from me, he came in on my right side, I was in the second row in the very front. He came in and he threw in the gas can," Jennifer Seeger, another theatergoer, told NBC News. "And then I knew it was real. And then he shot the ceiling, and right after he shot the ceiling, he pointed the gun right at me, and at that point, I dove into the aisle, and I got lucky because he didn't shoot me.
"But then he started to shoot people behind me, and bullets started falling on my head, it was like burning my head because it was so fresh," Seeger continued. "I could smell gunpowder. And at that point he walked up the stairs, and all you could hear is mass chaos."
Speaking to ABC affiliate KMGH, Christ Jones said, "We were maybe 20 or 30 minutes into the movie and all you hear, first you smell smoke, everybody thought it was fireworks or something like that, and then you just see people dropping and the gunshots are constant. I heard at least 20 to 30 rounds within that minute or two."
"I hit the floor and hid behind the seats in front of me, pulling my wife down to hide with me," Adam Witt, speaking to CNN, said. "It was the longest minute of my life. The gunshots just kept coming. I knew it could be over any second. I knew my wife could be gone any second. It was absolutely surreal. I felt something hit my left arm, and my first thought was, 'At least it's just my arm.'"
One of the 12 victims killed is Jessica Ghawi, an aspiring sportscaster who had just recently moved from San Antonio to Colorado. Already, the San Antonio media and friends have started to remember her with news stories and tweets.
Email: Jordan.Zakarin@THR.com; Twitter: @JordanZakarin