A ‘Horrific Scene’ at the Theater, a Command Center at the High School

July 20, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Ray Suarez speaks with Associated Press reporter Peter Banda, who gathered witness accounts of the shooting scene. Then, the Denver Post's Kurtis Lee describes the searches and reunions of victims, friends and loved ones at nearby Gateway High School in Aurora, Colo.

RAY SUAREZ:  We’re joined from Aurora by Peter Banda of the Associated Press. Peter, welcome to the program.

Among other things, you have been looking at the James Holmes himself. What you can tell us about the young man charged with the crime?

PETER BANDA, Associated Press: Well, you know, not much is known about the suspect.

All we know right now is that he was a Ph.D. or doctoral student at the University of Colorado. He was studying neuroscience. And he enrolled about a year ago, but he was in the process of withdrawing. So far, that’s all we have been able to find out.

We have been trying — you know, trying to find out as much information as we can. So far, that’s all we have been able to find out.

RAY SUAREZ:  You have been talking to survivors of the theater shooting. Tell us some of the stories that have emerged from your reporting.

PETER BANDA: The stories coming out of the theater are heartbreaking.

You know, I can’t imagine being in that type of situation. We have heard stories about, you know, the gunman pointing the gun at one particular patron who was about four to five feet away from the gunman. She survived. She jumped out of the way.

We have heard stories of two young ladies, 20-year-olds who had — they ducked underneath the seats, and they were trying to make their way. And they were describing how they were so afraid that, you know, the gunman would come for them, afraid to duck, duck their heads up, afraid to move. They told us that the hardest part for them was doing something, getting up, trying to find that chance.

But then, when they did find that chance, it was actually getting up. But they found courage to do that, and they made it out one of the side entrances.

We have heard stories of the wounded. One witness told us that, as she was crawling out, she was crawling over what felt like bodies, lifeless bodies in the aisles and in the rows of seats. And, you know, one of these bodies moaned, and she felt compelled to do something. She was trained in EMT, and she checked his pulse. And she had to make a calculation, whether she waited there and helped this person out or if she made her way out for her own safety.

And she ended up choosing her own safety. You know, we have heard stories of one father — or apparently a father, an older gentleman carrying a young child. The estimate from the witness who told us was this child was about 7 years old.

You know, blood — one witness told us that a friend of theirs slipped on a pool of blood. I mean, this just was a horrific scene that they described, along with the terror and the smoke and the gunshots being fired. That’s what we’re hearing.

RAY SUAREZ:  One of the most shocking things about this crime is the large number of people shot in what seems to be a very short amount of time.

Do we know, of the 59 people who were injured, whether some of them are in grave condition and are in danger of dying?

PETER BANDA: You know, as far as whether or not they’re in danger of dying, anybody who is in critical condition would always be in danger of dying.

As far as the number of people who are in that condition, it is a changing situation. I don’t have that figure right now about how many are in the condition. We do know that 12 people are dead. 10 died at the theater. Two died at the hospitals. And we do know that 60 people were injured.

RAY SUAREZ:  A shocking story has emerged about the appearance of the shooter in the theater. What have they, both police and witnesses to the shooting, said about what the gunman looked like?

PETER BANDA: Well, the witnesses described to us a man who was dressed in black head to toe, appeared to be wearing a bulletproof vest and boots, silently moving — silently moving through the theater.

As far as, you know, what — and the suspect was wearing a mask. What we’re hearing are reports coming out of New York that this gentleman had painted his hair red and that had told police that he was the Joker. But that’s a report. And we have been unable to confirm that report.

But, you know, as far as witnesses, what we’re hearing from witnesses is that he was wearing a mask. So, the red hair and whether or not he had — you know, what his face looked like, we’re not getting that from the witnesses.

RAY SUAREZ:  Peter Banda of The Associated Press from Aurora, Colo., thanks for joining us.

PETER BANDA: Thank you.

RAY SUAREZ: Denver Post reporter Kurtis Lee was at Gateway High School in Aurora, which police turned into a command post overnight. I spoke with him earlier today.

Kurtis, welcome to the program.

There’s a command center at Gateway. You’re not far from the theaters where the shootings occurred. What’s going on there? What have police been doing at the high school?

KURTIS LEE, The Denver Post: Yes, Ray, so, Gateway High School is several miles away, a short drive, like you were saying.

But, at the high school, early this morning, right after the shooting occurred, they bussed several dozen witnesses to the high school where they conducted interviews with them. These are local police officials, as well as — we have heard reports of the FBI conducting interviews with witnesses.

And then, after those were done, about 6:30 or 7:00 in the morning, they slowly began to trickle out of the high school. And now the high school is basically a staging area for people who have — who don’t know where their loved ones are, friends or loved ones are located. And that’s kind of what it is right now, the Gateway High School.

RAY SUAREZ: Did you get a chance to talk to people who were in the theater when the shootings occurred?

KURTIS LEE: When the shootings occurred, they — they — when they exited the high school, several people described what they saw.

One gentleman had said that he saw a gunman enter the front emergency entrance in full black and a gas mask on, and he threw a canister into the crowd which appeared to be tear gas and then just began shooting. And several people described the guy as wearing all black, a gas mask and just very calm in what he was doing.

RAY SUAREZ: It is remarkable that so many people were able to get out so quickly. Did anyone tell you how they managed to get out of the theater and not get hurt?

KURTIS LEE: It was just mass chaos.

One gentleman in the parking lot of the high school, he was missing his shoes. He had lost his shoes trying to get out. People were bruised and kind of bloody and scratched up because they were just scrambling to get out in the chaos of the event.

RAY SUAREZ: Tell me about the people who came searching for relatives or friends. This is a crime, after all, that happened in the middle of the night. Was it late morning before a lot of people even realized what happened?

KURTIS LEE: Absolutely.

A number of people lost cell phones in the chaos trying to get out of the theater. So, they weren’t able to get in touch with friends and family. So a lot of people were just rushing into Gateway High School. One gentleman had a picture of his son, saying he can’t get a hold of his son.

It was just very, you know, tragic. A lot of people were in shock. They just didn’t know what was going on. And that’s what Gateway is right now. It’s a place for people to go, give the name of someone that they can’t get a hold of, and hopefully get information on their whereabouts.

RAY SUAREZ: Did you witness any of those reunions? Did people find who they were looking for or realize the person they were looking for was either injured or even dead?

KURTIS LEE: Yes, several people were exiting the high school in tears. But I talked to them, and they were tears of joy because they found out that their loved one is OK. They finally managed to get a hold of them.

I have not spoke to someone who found out that their loved one or a friend or family member has passed away or was killed in the shooting.

RAY SUAREZ: Kurtis Lee, thanks.

KURTIS LEE: Thanks, Ray.

RAY SUAREZ: Our reporting continues online, where we have eyewitness accounts of the shootings and links to photos taken by The Denver Post.

Find video from the president and Mitt Romney’s comments today, as well as those of Colorado officials. Plus, we’ll live stream news conferences later this evening.