Andrew Bowers had been excited to see the film and was sat three rows from the front. He survived the scramble to get out with just a few scrapes and cuts. "I would not call this an injury, considering what happened to others," he said. "I am blessed. I just can't believe it."
Disbelief was a common emotion in Aurora as the town, a few miles from the scene of the 1999 Columbine school massacre, digested the idea that it too would become synonymous with a mass shooting. Despite being part of Denver's suburban sprawl, Aurora has a small-town feel. Almost everyone seemed to know someone who was there at the cinema.
Nate Rice, 21, who works at Starbucks, said a co-worker had got a call about her sister who was at the screening. He came to the police cordon around the cinema to lay some flowers below a sign that said: "Gone but not forgotten."
At a press conference late on Friday night, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper struggled to overcome his emotions. He spoke of "an act that defies description", and his sentences often tailed off unfinished. "This senseless act of violence …" he said, before stopping and adding: "Again there are just no words." He tried again: "We are not going to let this community be defined by a …" But the words did not come that time either.
The Aurora police chief, Daniel Oates, fought to hold back tears as he spoke at the end of an unimaginable day. He listed how the suspected killer, James Holmes, had bought four guns and 6,000 rounds of ammunition and had decked himself out head to toe in bulletproof protection.
Oates methodically described what appeared to be an elaborate booby-trap that Holmes had left in his apartment. "I have personally never seen anything like what the pictures show us in there," he said. He spoke of how police had responded to the first distress calls within two minutes, had found a scene of death and carnage and then apprehended a suspect. "Our cops went through a lot," he said, his face creased with emotion.
Tom Mauser, whose son Daniel died at the hands of the Columbine killers, came down to a prayer vigil on a small rise above the cinema. He urged a group of about 300 locals to seek help or reach out to victims. "Just simply being in that theater is trauma. Reach out to these people and tell them that you are praying for them," he said.
People held candles aloft. Many wept and held hands. At one stage a pastor urged everyone to hug each other, and the entire crowd broke out in a mass of embraces.
The impact of the seemingly random choice of whether or not to go and see a movie was on display here too. The Rev. Acen Phillips told the crowd that his granddaughter had been inside the cinema. She had been with seven friends, one of whom had been shot in the leg. "The violence has got to stop," he said.
The Rev. Timothy Tyler said he had been counseling a woman who had gone to see the film. Her boyfriend had pushed her to safety as the shooting began and then disappeared in the melee. She had not heard anything since and feared he was dead or injured.
Tyler said he had asked the woman to pray with him, but she had angrily refused. "I remembered that there are times when you do not feel like talking to God," said Tyler.
Mary Millens, 43, who works at the local airport, had come to the vigil looking for comfort, but it was a struggle. "It helped a little," she said. "But no one understands it. No one has the answers."
Intellpuke: You can read this article by Guardian U.S. Correspondent Paul Harris, reporting from Aurora, Colorado, in context here: www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/jul/21/aurora-shooting-despair-disbelief