An ambulance waits outside the Century 16 cineplex in Aurora, Colo., in… (Bob Pearson / European Pressphoto…)
On Thursday, Stephen Barton and his friend Ethan Rodriguez-Torrent had pedaled their bikes 80 exhausting miles as part of a cross-country tour. They met up with a friend in Aurora and decided to go to a midnight showing of the new Batman movie.
The 12:01 show was sold out. So they went to the 12:05 screening, sitting halfway up in the stadium seating.
Ten, maybe 20 minutes passed. On screen, Bruce Wayne and his butler, Alfred, were sharing a solemn moment. Suddenly, something arced across the screen, from right to left. It made a hissing sound. There were several flashes. Barton and Rodriguez-Torrent, 22-year-old friends from Southbury, Conn., assumed they were fireworks.
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It was gunfire.
The gunman didn't move much, and appeared to aim at the center of the theater. "It was cold and calculated, definitely," Barton said. "It seemed very methodical, just the rate at which he was firing and how he wasn't really moving positions. He was just like unloading into a crowd."
The shooter killed at least 12 people and injured 58 others. Authorities said he used a variety of weapons, and what doctors found was consistent with that -- they treated victims with shotgun, handgun and high-velocity rifle wounds.
"My memory is only of the muzzle, of the flash. ... I didn't even see a figure behind the gun," Barton said Friday from his hospital bed at the Medical Center of Aurora. He had been struck near the left side of his neck and required more than an hour of surgery. His face and right arm were peppered with coin-size shrapnel wounds.
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As he spoke, his mom, Christine Barton, watched nearby, her eyes welling with tears.
Barton recalled being shot, ducking down behind the seats, hearing screams. At one point, when he lost feeling in his left arm, he was briefly convinced it had been blown off.
"On some level I guess I realized there's a shooter in the theater and he's killing people," he recalled. "But on another level I guess I didn't really want to believe it."
Rodriguez-Torrent, who was crouched next to him, called 911. He got frustrated with the operator -- in the chaos, her questions didn't seem to make sense to him. He hung up.
Then he turned to the friend who'd accompanied them. "She had blood all over her, all over her face," he said. She couldn't pull herself up.
Barton thought that about 25 rounds went off -- there were probably more -- before the shooter paused. Was he reloading? Was he going to fire into the aisles?
Most people didn't wait to find out. They streamed out an emergency exit in the back left corner. Barton ran after them, and didn't look back.
Rodriguez-Torrent stayed with their friend. The movie played for a little longer, and there was gunfire on screen. From the floor, Rodriguez-Torrent couldn't tell if it was fake or real.
He recalled thinking: "I don't want to die. I don't want to die like this. I don't want my friend to die."
Finally, the movie stopped and the lights came on. Rodriguez-Torrent helped his friend stand up, and they made their way to the lobby via the emergency exit -- still not knowing whether the gunman had left.
Some people helped carry the friend to an ambulance. She remains hospitalized.
"I was covered in her blood, basically," Rodriguez-Torrent said. "On my legs and some on my arms. ... My shoes are still disgusting."
Amid the crowd, Barton and Rodriguez-Torrent briefly found each other. Then a police officer rushed Barton to the hospital. He was one of 18 victims treated at the Medical Center of Aurora. (Seven remain, two of them in critical condition.)
About 3 a.m. Friday, Rodriguez-Torrent woke Barton's mom with a phone call. All he knew at that point was that her son had been wounded. Christine Barton and her husband caught an 8:30 flight to Denver. When she finally saw her son, he was recovering from surgery.
"The first thing I did was touch his head and give him a little kiss," she said.
A few hours later, Barton appeared in relatively good spirits. He made eye contact and eked out some relieved smiles. Someone had left a card on his tray that said: "People who think laughter is the best medicine apparently never had morphine."
Barton and Rodriguez-Torrent had spent more than two years planning their bike trip. They took off in June from Virginia Beach, Va., with hopes of reaching San Francisco. Barton said that once he recovers, he'd like to finish their journey.
His mom repeatedly shook her head no.
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