HEROES AMONG US THEY PROTECTED THEIR LOVED ONES
THEY CARRIED STRANGERS TO SAFETY
THEY PROVIDED COMFORT AND CARE By John Ingold; Photos by RJ Sangosti and Joe Amon, The Denver Post
What would I do? When the lights go down in a movie theater, you are alone, even in the crowd. Please be quiet. Silence your cellphone. The room smells of popcorn butter, and your shoes stick to the floor. But the surroundings drift away as the images onscreen spool into your imagination and the sound effects vibrate into your rib cage. The accelerating story takes you along. That’s the point, isn’t it? To escape? From practically the opening scene of “The Dark Knight Rises,” pretend guns fire and actors shriek, a classic slambang opener. But then, during a quiet scene, the sound of gunshots — suddenly, confusingly — comes alive again in theater 9 at the Cen-
tury Aurora 16. Bullets rip into the air. Innocents scream. The gunman shouts. The wounded wail out. The bloodshed is real.
What would I do? Inside the theater, some froze and many ran. They were human. There is no disgrace in that. But sitting amid the crowd, Jon Blunk did not freeze, and he did not run. Instead, he quickly pushed his girlfriend to the ground — to safety — then shielded her from bullets that took his life but not hers. Across the theater, others — Matt McQuinn, John Larimer, Jesse Childress and more — were just as selfless. Even as the gunman continued to shoot, even as fear was at its strongest, the theater was awash in courage.
SUNDAY, JULY 29, 2012
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MATT Mc Q U I N N | A M I X O F H U M I L I T Y A N D C O U RAG E
“That’s just the type of person he was” By Ray Mark Rinaldi The Denver Post
t’s impossible to say now why Matt McQuinn reacted the way he did when the shooting started that night at an Aurora movie theater. Instead of protecting himself, the Ohio native protected another, his girlfriend, Samantha Yowler. He joined her brother, Nick, to form a human shield over her as a gunman took aim at the innocent. Nick was uninjured. Samantha was shot in the leg. Matt took three bullets and died. People who knew McQuinn, 27, say it was his natural way. “That’s just the type of person he was,” said longtime family friend Micaella Clay. “He was the first person I know who you would call if you needed something.” One of the last times Clay saw McQuinn, he was headed out the door to rescue a friend with a flat tire. It’s a long way, though, from doing favors to sacrificing a life, from being a nice guy to choosing the ultimate act of chivalry, and that is where those who knew about McQuinn will have to connect the dots. And it’s not just friends and family, but everyone affected by the tragedy in any way, who find hope in the notion that it brought out the best in some. By now, news accounts have detailed the key facts. McQuinn went to high school in Vandalia, Ohio, a small, scattered Dayton suburb caught somewhere between our traditional and modern notions of middle America. It has its Walmart superstore but also the old doughnut shop, where people gather around a counter and go through five trays of blueberries a day. As a young adult, he was well-known in nearby Springfield, where he was active in Maiden Lane Church of God. He and Samantha, also 27, worked at Target. Last November, the pair joined Nick Yowler in Colorado, transferring to a Target store not so far from the Century Aurora 16 movie theater. The trail McQuinn left behind — through the testimony of acquaintances, social networks and stories — offers some clues about why he acted bravely when things turned dark at a screening of a Batman sequel July 20. In some ways, it seems simple. “I’m not surprised at all about Matt,” said David Kasel, who went to school with McQuinn and knew him since they were kids. McQuinn wasn’t one to steal the spotlight then, he said. He was a sport, not a showoff. “He was very loyal, a good friend,” Kasel said. The type of guy, yes, who would take a bullet for you. McQuinn’s own pages on Facebook and MySpace offer a more complex portrait. They have all those things you would expect from a kid who grew up in a Midwest setting best described as usual. He had lots of friends, and they clearly had some good times; there is a lot of camaraderie and a little beer in the picture. He was close to his family, no doubt. But he wasn’t all the quiet type, either. Clicking through the photos, another trait — something akin to nerve, even daring —
HEROES «FROM 1B Young women and men such as Jarell Brooks stayed beside wounded friends or frightened strangers — vowing not to leave them — even though they themselves could flee. “You actually have to take into consideration that helping this person might be the end,” Brooks would later say. While people pushed out in a wave of panic, Chris Lakota ran into the theater, toward the danger. These words — “Unto the breach, dear friends” — popped into his head as he did. In the parking lot outside, Stephanie Rodriguez took off her belt and fashioned a tourniquet on the leg of a man screaming in pain. Todd Peckham stopped his own escape — shouting down any fear inside him — and helped victims to safety. He held one man’s head as the man gushed blood. “I’m an able-bodied man,” Peckham says now. “I was like, I gotta do this. I can’t not be a part of this.”
Would I do that? It is, perhaps, obvious that you don’t know what you have inside of you until you are forced to look. “Unless you’re in that situation,” says Medical
Matt McQuinn poses with his girlfriend, Samantha Yowler, whom he covered with his body to protect amid the horror at the Century Aurora 16. Yowler, also shielded by her brother, Nick, was wounded. McQuinn was shot three times and died. The Associated Press emerges. His bottom lip was pierced twice with metal posts. Facial hair comes and goes, and there is a colorful parade of sunglasses and ball caps. His musical favorites give a nod to Michael Jackson but center more on louder rock bands such as Avenged Sevenfold. Matt took lots of pictures with his hand held up, index finger and pinkie pointed out, heavy-metal style. It’s nothing too outrageous; it looks like fun, actually. But maybe it all adds up. There’s that bold McQuinn, the one who dressed like the Joker on Halloween, friended Playboy Playmate Kendra Wilkinson and tattoo TV star Kat
Center of Aurora Dr. Frank Lansville, “you have no idea how you’re going to react.” But, though there is no formula for bravery, Cornell University psychology professor David Dunning says valor “is surprisingly a seed we all contain.” And it is a seed that can be nurtured. What it takes is the experience to help — medical training, crisis skills, even just a habit of doing kind acts for others — and an occasion to use it. These things can be trained. They can be practiced. The next open Mile High Red Cross class on first aid and CPR starts Friday in Broomfield. The Tuesday class is already full. Take a look at the people who performed acts of courage at the theater. They are military veterans and people with medical skills. They are the children of parents who taught them to always help, no matter where, no matter what. Sometimes it was a choice that night, and sometimes it was just a reflex. But every one of them was prepared for bravery. Is it any wonder that Blunk told friends he expected to die valiantly? “People would be surprised when an opportunity arises, how much they might rise to the occasion,” Dunning says. “People respond in helpful ways more than they might think.” Courage is contagious. One person acting bravely causes another to do so. We gain
Von D, and liked motorcycles. And there’s the quiet McQuinn, who was popular at church, whom Kasel describes as disinterested in the spotlight, a guy who liked to laugh at other people’s jokes. A mix of humility and courage, of kindness and audacity, of tradition and rebellion. The type of guy, yes, who would take a bullet. McQuinn’s friends are returning his loyalty in the days following his death. Clay has started a fund drive on the website giveforward.org, and more than $11,000 has poured in. They hope to raise more and spread the generosity to the families of the other shooting victims.
strength from one another. Even at the movies, you are not really alone. Outside the theater, bystanders stopping to help inspired others to do the same. An Aurora police officer began loading the wounded into his cruiser to drive them to the hospital himself. Another followed his lead. And another. At the hospital, teams of doctors and nurses worked aggressively to fight back against death, the belief of one amid the chaos fortifying the belief of others. Of the 60 people — 60 people — taken to the hospital that night, doctors and nurses saved all but two. “I don’t know what the ‘it’ was that night,” says Lansville, the Aurora doctor. “But ‘it’ worked.” For most of its duration, “The Dark Knight Rises” is a story about a terrorist who thinks he has won. It isn’t until the end — when citizens step forward to protect one another and police officers show the bravery behind the badge — that heroes emerge. But the Aurora gunman didn’t need to wait until the end to learn that. He saw it play out in front of him in real life. Heroes arose before his eyes. John Ingold: 303-954-1068, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/john_ingold
Kasel, a graphic artist, has designed a Tshirt that turns the Batman logo into two “M’s,” a tribute to his old pal. McQuinn’s mother asked for 30 of the shirts for family and friends to wear as they grieve. He is giving them to her and will sell the rest to raise money for burial costs (purchase via the website signsteingraphics-com1.webs.com). No one knows exactly why McQuinn rose to the moment. But it’s clear that friends and family want to rise up for him. Ray Mark Rinaldi: 303-954-1540, email@example.com or twitter.com/rayrinaldi
About the section Section editor: Lee Ann Colacioppo Design: Matt Swaney Photography editor: Ken Lyons Editing: Marcus Chamberland, John Ealy, Dale Ulland, Vinny Vella, Bob Willis Research: Vickie Makings Reporting: Karen Augé, Michael Booth, Jennifer Brown, Eric Gorski, Tegan Hanlan, John Ingold, Ray Mark Rinaldi, Erin Udell Photography: Joe Amon, Karl Gehring, Helen H. Richardson, RJ Sangosti
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HEROES AMONG US «3B
MICHAEL W H IT E SR . | A FAT H E R P ROT E C T S H I S C H I LD REN
Michael White Sr. was able to shield his son’s girlfriend, Farrah Soudani, during the shooting. Both his son and Soudani were wounded in the rampage. RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post
“He’s going to shoot me, but he’s not going to get them” By Karen Augé The Denver Post
ichael White Sr. lifted his head just enough to peek through the ribbon of space between two theater seats in front of him. “I saw him climbing the stairs, coming toward us, shooting. I thought, ‘This guy’s gonna shoot me.’ ” The fire alarm was bleating by then, and White remembers thinking, “What’s taking the police so long?” He kept peeking between the seats. The shooter kept coming. “I thought about Farrah and my son. I thought, ‘He’s going to shoot me, but he’s not going to get them. He’s not going to get both of us.’ So I laid over Farrah to cover her, and I tried to keep her quiet.” He lay there, his body shielding his son’s wounded girlfriend and listening to the poppop-pop of semi-automatic rounds spraying around the dark theater, where up on screen, “The Dark Knight Rises” was still playing. “I was waiting for the bullet to come.” White figures the killer was about two rows away, still firing, when the lights came on. “And he stopped shooting. He turned and started to head out.” The father waited a few seconds to make sure he hadn’t just imagined the shooter leaving. “Then I told Farrah I was going to go get help.” Midnight-movie premieres had become something of a White family tradition. For this particular Batman premiere, though, only two of White’s four children — his oldest son, Mike Jr. and his daughter, Paula Adams — could make it. Mike Sr.’s girlfriend, Michelle Baker, came, along with Mike Jr.’s girlfriend, Farrah Soudani, who mixed her boyfriend’s family with a group of her friends and co-workers from the nearby Red Robin restaurant. Between the Whites and the Red Robin employees, the group claimed pretty much the entire seventh row. The previews were over, the opening credits had rolled, and Bruce Wayne was in the Batcave talking to Alfred when Michael White Jr. saw a canister fly through the air across the front of the theater. “I chuckled because I thought, ‘Somebody lost their Batman prop.’ ” His dad saw the canister too. Mike White Sr. also saw the exit door down at the front of the theater open. And when light from the movie playing on screen flickered just right, White saw the man dressed in black. “I thought it was a Batman costume, something the theater was doing,” he said. He still believed that when the man fired a shotgun. Then, White watched as he switched from a shotgun to a semi-automatic rifle. “That’s when I realized it was real.” At that moment, it was as if a switch had been flipped. Everyone in the theater seemed to come to that realization at once. People started screaming, and all over the theater, the Whites could see people hitting the floor — either because they were hiding or because they had been shot. Michael White Jr. heard his father yell, “Get down!” but by then, the 33-year-old was already hit.
So was Soudani. “ ‘I’m hit!’ ” Mike Jr. heard her scream. “ ‘My guts are on the floor.’ ” He tried to crawl across the floor to his girlfriend, but he couldn’t move. “I remember seeing Farrah trying to work her way toward us. I remember watching bodies drop.” At that point, the shooter’s gun jammed, although at the time, the elder White figured he must be reloading. “I thought, ‘This is gonna take him a minute,’ ” so the elder White grabbed his daughter and his girlfriend by the hair, pulled them toward the back door and told them to run. “I turned back to see about my son and Farrah. That’s when I realized Farrah was hurt.” Mike Sr. took off his shirt and held it over a hole on Farrah’s side. “I started talking to her. She was saying, ‘I’m scared. I don’t want to die,’ so I told her, ‘I’ve got you. I’m not going to leave you.’ I told her, ‘Everything’s going to be all right,’ ” He didn’t believe that last sentence for a second. It was about that time, White said, that he looked through the sliver of light between theater seats and saw the man in black gunning for them a second time.
At that moment, White stopped comforting Farrah and set about saving her life. When the shooting stopped and White finally left the theater to get help, police were in the lobby. They ordered him to get down, to crawl out the door, and he did. A police officer took Mike White Jr. to the hospital in his patrol car, and that same officer — the Whites think his name was Mike Hawkins, and they would like to thank him — came back to the scene and found Mike Sr. a shirt to put on. In the days since, as the critically wounded Soudani has been recovering at University of Colorado Hospital, White said he has asked himself why he risked his life to save that of a woman he’d met only once before. He spent 20 years in the Air Force, but it wasn’t his military experience kicking in. He never saw combat or got shot at in two decades of service that took him to Japan and England and all over the U.S. It wasn’t instinct, either, or some innate tendency to heroics. Asked if he had ever saved anyone’s life before, White joked that he had maybe saved a teddy bear from drowning as a kid, but that was the closest he had come. It’s definitely not that he was ready to die
that night. The best answer he has come up with might make sense only to another parent. “I was thinking of my son, and of how much they are in love. I didn’t want that to end.” His son loved her, White said. “I couldn’t let her get away.” Mike Jr. spent four days at University. He was shot in the arm, but the bullet grazed a lung and broke a rib before exiting his back. Six days after the shooting, White took his son to the dusty corner across the street from the Aurora theater that had been filled with flowers, candles and good wishes. His right arm was still in a sling, and he moved a little slowly in the blistering heat, but he stopped in front of each victim’s name. He was surprised, he said as the two men walked away, at how much the pile of teddy bears and the kind words people had written moved him. Then someone asked him what he thought of his dad, and Mike White Jr. broke into a grin. “He’s pretty great. But I always knew that.” Karen Augé: 303-954-1733, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/karenauge
A N G G I AT M O R A | H E L P I NG H IS FA M I LY
“I’m going to carry you” By Michael Booth The Denver Post
The killer had walked on to shoot others. Anggiat Mora had to shoulder his wounded family. Mora felt he had already escaped disaster once, in what suddenly seemed like a different life, and maybe he didn’t deserve that reprieve. So there was no getting away from this one. Not with his wife crying on the movie theater floor, shot in three places. “Leave me here,” Rita sobbed. “No, I’m going to carry you,” shouted Mora. “We go together.” And the small man, whose plane had taken off from a Japanese airport just as last year’s tsunami hit, hoisted Rita on his back and staggered 30 feet. He didn’t stop until he saw the warm welcome of flashing red-and-blue police lights. Mora had an eye out for his son, Patria, amid the heavy noxious gas and the flashes of light. Patria, 14, had moved a few feet away as they fled the terror of even more gunshots. But then Mora saw him again, as a young woman called for help with a man shot in his leg. “He could have left, but he stopped to help,” Mora said of his son. They carried their wounded — mom and a complete stranger — until Mora was out of breath, and his son needed to show him something. Patria lifted up his shirt and showed his father another gunshot wound. Asked whether carrying Rita was unusual somehow, Mora says: “No, no, no, no. I was not a hero to help my family. I needed to help my family.”
Shooting victim Rita Mora was carried from the theater by her husband, Anggiat Mora. Rita was shot three times during the attack, which left 12 dead. Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post
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JO N B LU N K | FAT H E R O F T WO D I E D P ROT E C T I N G H IS G I RLF RI EN D
“The situations in my life made me the man I am” By Karen Augé The Denver Post
on Blunk knew instantly that it was real. Blunk wasn’t fooled. His girlfriend, Jansen Young, has said that when “a bomb or something flew up behind us,” Blunk reacted immediately. She hadn’t yet processed what she’d heard and seen, so when he pushed her to the floor she asked, “Why, what’s going on?” Out in the parking lot, a handgun, part of Blunk’s firearms collection, lay in his car. In some ways, a good portion of Blunk’s 26 years were preparation for the moment when a gunman marched up and down the dark aisles of the Century Aurora 16 theater. When he was a toddler, his mother took off, leaving Blunk’s dad to raise him alone, said his friend Kyle Dawson. Growing up in Englewood, Blunk believed his mother was dead, Dawson said. He was a teenager, living in Reno, Nev., before he learned she was alive and that he had halfbrothers and a half-sister. Dawson heard bits and pieces of Blunk’s early life on long shifts together when the two were deployed on the nuclear super carrier USS Nimitz. What Dawson never heard, he said, was a complaint about it out of his friend. “He just said, ‘The situations in my life made me the man I am,’ ” Dawson said. Just out of high school, Blunk joined the Navy. By 20, he was married to his high school sweetheart, Chantel; at 21, he was a father. “I’d never seen happiness in his face like when his first child came into the world,” said Dawson, who is godfather to Hailey, now 4. “By the time his daughter was 6 months old, he was, like, ‘I want a son.’ ” Blunk picked out a name for his boy. “Before long, he had a tattoo on his back that was his son’s initials,” Dawson said. Sure enough, a year so later, Chantel gave birth, and the baby boy was christened with Blunk’s chosen name: Maximus. Blunk warned Chantel early on that he wouldn’t be a 9-to-5, home-every-night kind of husband and father, Dawson said. Even the job the Navy gave him, working on the Nimitz’s power plant, didn’t satisfy his appetite for a life outside everyone else’s comfort zone. What he really wanted was to be a Navy SEAL, Dawson said. But he was afraid if he applied and didn’t get accepted for SEAL training, he could wind up back on a power-plant crew for four years. So in 2009, he left the Navy and set his sights on becoming a police officer — not to be a guy writing traffic tickets, as Dawson put it. “He wanted to be on a SWAT team,” he said. He brought his wife and kids to Colorado, the home state he’d missed since he left as a kid. But this time, things didn’t go as Blunk planned. A couple of teenage screw-ups stood in the way of his plans to become a police officer, so he redirected his energy toward getting back into the Navy and into SEAL training. His relationship with Chantel frayed, and eventually she took the kids and went back to Reno, where she planned to stay until he got his act together, Dawson said. The man she struggled with and the man she married was never a guy who picked a fight, but neither was he a guy to back off from one. Once, in a Navy-base weight room, a man Dawson said was at least 300 pounds with arms “like two anacondas” was firing off critiques, and not in a helpful way, of other guys’ lifting technique and skill. Everybody in the place was intimidated, except Blunk. Jon got in his face and told him to be quiet, Dawson said — and got those arms around his neck for his trouble. “You wouldn’t think anybody in his right mind would bite off a piece of that,” Dawson said. Maybe, Dawson said, a kid whose mom leaves him has nothing left to fear. In any case, “there wasn’t much in any situation that could scare him.” If he was scared in the theater in the early morning of July 20, he gave no sign of it. A lot of people have asked Dawson if he’s surprised by what Blunk did in that theater. Nothing could be further from reality. As the shooter walked up the aisle, firing at people who were screaming and running away, Jansen Young has said, Blunk “pushed me farther under the seats,” still protecting her, telling her to be quiet and stay down. He kept pushing, Young told NBC. And then, she didn’t feel him pushing anymore. Dawson and Blunk had talked about how they would react if, say, they were in a bank when a robber came in waving a gun. “We talked about how he would love to be the person in that situation … who would step up,” Dawson said. Whether he ever considered that his bravery might leave his kids, whom he planned to see the weekend after he died, without their dad, he never talked about that, Dawson said. “He said, ‘Everybody’s going to die. I’d be more than happy to die doing something or protecting somebody other than myself.’ ”
Karen Augé: 303-954-1733, email@example.com or twitter.com/karenauge
Jon Blunk, pictured with his children Maximus and Hailey, wanted to be a Navy SEAL. His girlfriend said he showed no sign of fear during the theater shooting. Reuters
Online. View slide shows and watch a video interview with some of those profiled in this section. »denverpost.com/ heroes
Read previous coverage of the Aurora theater shootings. »denverpost.com/ theatershooting
Jansen Young survived the Aurora shooting rampage when her boyfriend, Jon Blunk, sacrificed his own life by shielding her from the bullets and shrapnel flying around the movie theater. Photo courtesy of the Young family
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TODD PE C K HA M A N D JU ST I N BA KE R | FRI E N D S H ELP STRA NG ERS
“Do you need help? Are you OK?”
Justin Baker, left, and Todd Peckham, who had been watching a movie in another theater, guided victims toward safety and treatment. Photos by RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post
By Ray Mark Rinaldi The Denver Post
odd Peckham and Justin Baker may have surprised themselves when they dived into the chaos unfolding at the Century Aurora 16 movie theater. But they didn’t surprise each other. The two have been friends for four years. They share a certain sort of common sense, an admiration for each other’s character, resourcefulness, honor. Each uses that to explain why it was natural for the other to enter the bloody fray, to walk toward the mess when someone yelled, “Shots fired!” rather than away from it. “Todd is amazing,” said Baker, simply. “I’m so proud of Justin,” Peckham said. Together, Peckham and Baker ushered victims to safety, helped the wounded into vehicles, held the heads and hands of people whose bodies had been ravaged in the shooting rampage. It was an experience that cost them — in the days since the event, and maybe in the days that are to follow — sleep, security, confidence, calm. The two men share a kinship. Peckham is 41, Baker, 21. Peckham is a mentor, of sorts, for Baker. He helped him out through school, gave him a place to stay for a while. If anyone wonders what kinds of adventures bond the two of them, it might be this: They were both up for the 10:20 p.m. showing of the Spider-Man sequel in the Century’s theater 15, a late screening of a blockbuster two weeks past its opening-weekend prime. They got there five minutes late and saw the film through to the start of its closing credits when the fire sirens went off. No big deal, they thought, false alarm. They began to gather their popcorn and bottled water. Then, a movie-theater employee entered
and told them to get out — now. “His eyes were big, scary, wet. That’s when I knew something was wrong,” Peckham said. That something became clear as they exited the building through a hazy hallway, arrived outside and looked toward the theater showing “The Dark Knight Rises.” “In a flash, there was just this mad rush and we saw hundreds of people pouring out of the north end,” Peckham said. They spent the next 40 minutes in an adrenaline-fueled rush, guiding victims away from whatever was going on in the theater and toward a stand of trees on the edge of the parking lot. Peckham saw a group of people hovering around a man who had been shot in the leg and began shouting orders for them to bring him over. “I can be bossy,” Peckham said. They laid the man down near a curb. “I held his head so it wouldn’t hang off or be on the cement,” Peckham said. Baker jumped on his phone to call 911. The man was screaming, “I have to call my wife. I have to call my wife.” He was asking frantically about his friend Pierce, left behind in the movie theater. All the while, another helper, Stephanie Rodriguez, steadfastly kept pressure on the man’s wound. “What’s your name?” Peckham asked. “Carey,” the man said. “What’s your wife’s name?” “Jessica.” Peckham calmed Carey Rottman by pledging to call his wife on the spot. He tapped her number into his cellphone as Rottman dictated. Just then, a police cruiser arrived, and Peckham helped lift Rottman into the back seat, holding a flashlight, pushing aside seat belts. The car rushed off. Peckham went to dial his phone, but the number had vanished from his screen. “I didn’t have a chance to save it, and it killed me because I had promised this guy,”
Peckham said. The pair plunged back into the darkness of the parking lot. Victims were scattered about, on phones, in groups. Some were bleeding. They saw two young women walking aside the theater. One of them collapsed. They ran over. “I put her arm around my shoulder and my hand around her waist,” Peckham said, “and she screamed out, ‘My right side, don’t touch my right side!’ ” She had been shot. He scooped up Allie Young and maneuvered her to a safe area while her friend, Stephanie Davis, put pressure on her wounds. They placed her on the ground next to another man who had been shot. Her head rested in Baker’s lap. A police officer walked toward them. He was clutching a little girl to his chest. She was limp, like a rag doll. Quickly, they flagged an ambulance and returned to the crowd. “We went through the parking lot and asked everyone that was there, ‘Do you need help? Are you OK?’ ” Peckham said. By then, the area was filling with emergency crews, and “there was a sense of minimal safety,” as Baker puts it. It was time to get out of the way. They walked over to Peckham’s Nissan Z, drove though the police barricades that had been set up and went home. There was little sleep that night and plenty of questions. The next day, they were hooked on news accounts of the shooting. They grew more and more worried about the people they had seen. Bit by bit, they pieced some of it together. They saw a story about Rottman and learned he survived. They connected with Rodriguez and shared their experiences. They heard a woman being interviewed on TV and recognized her voice. It was Young. She was safe too. Hospital visits followed.
Still, they wonder about the little girl. Was she the child shot and killed? Which of the other murky faces they encountered made it through, or didn’t? The questions are not so easily put away. Both men hold on to a sense of urgency. They want people to understand all of what happened that night and for the story of braver acts to be heard. They want everyone to know about Rodriguez’s strength, Rottman’s concern for others when he was injured himself. They want people to know that a veteran hairstylist and a Starbucks barista did what they could, that “something like this is bigger than what one person created and the evil that he brought there,” said Peckham, who owns Fix salon in Cherry Creek North. That “light always beats dark.” There’s a burden in that, and it weighs heavily. Both have reached out for counseling. Baker went to a meeting that Starbucks quickly arranged for three employees who were at the scene. Managers and counselors offered to assist. In a sense they are victims too, even if it was their decision to enter the fray. Friends have tried to tell them that their reaction was natural, that they are the kind of guys who are always there for others, good people who had no choice but to do the right thing. But that’s not entirely true. It was a choice. They remember making it. Peckham: “I took a moment and know in my head there’s a switch — on and off, on and off — that says, ‘What do you do, what do you do, what do you do, what do you do?’ What do you do?” And they did what they did. Ray Mark Rinaldi: 303-954-1540, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/rayrinaldi
WE WILL REMEMBER JON BLUNK
Jon Blunk, 26, was a lot of things — among them a Navy veteran and the father of two young children. But he may always be remembered as the man who lost his life saving someone else’s. Blunk was attending the midnight premiere of “The Dark Knight Rises” in Aurora with his girlfriend, Jansen Young, when a gunman opened fire in the theater. Blunk responded immediately, telling Young to get on the floor and pushing her under a seat. According to Young, Blunk covered her body with his own as bullets flew around them. “Jon took a bullet for me,” Young said. His actions that night surprised no one. “He always said if he was ever going to die, he wanted to die a hero,” Blunk’s estanged wife, Chantel, told KNRV-TV in her hometown, Reno, Nev. The couple was separated, but Chantel Blunk said Blunk was a devoted father who “wanted his kids to look up to him.”
Alexander Jonathan Boik — AJ to everyone who knew him — graduated from Gateway High School barely two months before he was killed in an Aurora movie theater. The 18-year-old on the cusp of adulthood will be remembered by his family for his “warm and loving heart.” At a candlelight vigil days after his death, friends and family — many dressed in purple, Boik’s favorite color — described a young man who was the life of the party. “AJ could put a smile on anybody’s face,” one friend said. Boik loved pottery, played baseball in high school — he was buried with his catcher’s mitt — and planned to attend the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design this fall. His dream was to teach art and own a studio someday. At AJ’s funeral, about 1,000 people heard his uncle John Hoover say Boik wasn’t the biggest guy but that he “had a huge personality.”
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HEROES AMONG US «7B
STE PHA N I E RO D R IG U E Z | A 1 7-Y E A R-O L D ’ S S E L FL ESS ACTIO NS
After fleeing the Aurora theater, 17-year-old Stephanie Rodriguez stopped to help a man who was shot in the leg. She used her belt as a tourniquet. RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post
“She had the strength of 10,000 men” By Jennifer Brown The Denver Post
nstead of running for her life, Stephanie Rodriguez ran to him, the man who collapsed outside the theater and lay on the pavement, screaming. “My leg! Help me!” he yelled, panicking. The 17-year-old girl knelt beside him and pushed her hands on his thigh, trying to stop the rush of blood like she had seen doctors do on “Grey’s Anatomy.” She took off her belt, the one with the silver buckle she had picked out that night to go with her Hollister shirt, and tied it like a shoelace around his leg. Then Stephanie lifted the man’s wounded leg, while her brother supported his other leg and two strangers cradled his torso. They dragged him out of the parking lot and to a grassy spot where he wouldn’t get run over by one of the fleeing cars. So many others had run right past the man before Stephanie came. She would find out later his name is Carey Rottman. Stephanie, a Gateway High School senior who thinks about becoming a police officer or a nurse, was calm — even as a stranger’s blood covered her hands and stained her jeans. “She had the strength of 10,000 men, and she’s 17 and she’s little and she’s beautiful,” said Todd Peckham, who was also helping victims that night. He was inspired by the girl with long eyelashes and thick, dark hair, the girl who didn’t flinch when she put pressure on a gunshot wound with her bare hands.
“It was adrenaline,” Stephanie said. “I wasn’t sure what was going on, and I hadn’t processed it yet. My first reaction was to help him.” Stephanie hadn’t really wanted to see the new Batman movie. Her older brother talked her into going with him and two of his friends. Like the others, she saw a figure enter through the emergency exit door beside the screen. She saw the man in the seat in front of her throw up his hands, batting at the gas canister flying through the darkness. It landed in the row in front of her, about halfway up the theater on the left side. And she saw the flash of white light streak out of the gun each time the gunman fired. Stephanie’s 20-year-old brother, Chris Ramos, grabbed her arm and pulled her to the floor. “I can’t believe this is happening,” he kept saying. “We’ve got to get out of here.” The shooting stopped, and Stephanie and Chris tried to escape. But the terror began again within a couple of seconds. Stephanie hit the floor and crawled back into her row. She prayed: “Dear God, please help us. Let all of us get out.” She remembers a man standing up and staring at the shooter, frozen with fear. She heard a girl screaming, “Dad! Dad!” but no one answered. She hoped someone would stop the gunman before he got anyone else. When the shooting stopped again, briefly, Stephanie stood and joined the rush of people clambering down the stairs toward the exit. She lost her brother and hoped he was
somewhere in the sea of people pushing down the stairs. She won’t forget the woman she couldn’t help. The woman’s legs were inside a row of seats, her upper body in the aisle, face up, eyes closed. Stephanie’s instinct told her to stop, to try to pick her up, but people were pushing from behind. In the panic, amid the screams and people shouting, “Go! Go! Get out!” the crowd stepped on the woman in the aisle. Outside in the parking lot, Stephanie and her brother stayed with Rottman, 27, until police set him in a squad car and drove him to the Medical Center of Aurora. “He stayed on my mind all night,” Stephanie said. The next day, she decided to find him. She commented on an online 9News story that mentioned Rottman, introducing herself and asking if he was doing OK. Then they connected through Facebook. When she walked into Rottman’s hospital room, his father grabbed her and squeezed. His mother asked Stephanie how old she was. “I told his mom I just turned 17, and she just burst into tears,” she said. Stephanie, who wears hot-pink flip-flops and blue glittery nail polish, said her mom has always taught her to help other people, whether they need money or kindness. Her mother, Violet Duran, said Stephanie’s character was tested that night, and her actions were selfless. “I don’t feel any different,” Stephanie said.
“In my heart, I feel really proud of myself. I see myself as human.” One of the friends who had gone to the movies with Stephanie and Chris called their mother minutes after the shooting, telling her they had been separated and didn’t know where they were. Duran was eating with her boyfriend. She stood up from the table, and her body began to shake. Her boyfriend drove her as close to the theater as they could get. She jumped out of the car and ran six blocks, as fast as she could. She didn’t stop shaking until she found her children in the crowd. Since that night, Stephanie’s brother keeps apologizing for taking her to the movie. He went to see it again at another theater and started to cry 20 minutes in, after seeing the scene now forever linked with the most terrifying day of his life. He woke up in a panic a few nights ago, the theater in his nightmares. Stephanie thought she was handling it fine until a loud pop outside her house made her crouch down and put her arm over her head. She burst into tears. And the morning after the shootings, Stephanie woke up in a fog at about 5 a.m., her cellphone in her hand. On the screen, it was ticking off the minutes since she had placed her last call, still on the line. She had called 911 in her sleep. Jennifer Brown: 303-954-1593, email@example.com or twitter.com/jbrowndpost
WE WILL REMEMBER STAFF SGT. JESSE CHILDRESS
Staff Sgt. Jesse Childress — who served his country in the military and loved sports and superheroes — died trying to save a friend. Childress, 29, whom a friend lovingly called a “big nerd,” was fatally wounded when he dived in front of a female Air Force member stationed with him at Buckley Air Force Base. Childress, of Thornton, worked as a cybersystems operator and was on active-duty orders in the 310th Force Support Squadron, according to the Air Force Reserve Command. His friends said Childress worked with the base’s computer systems. He played sports with friends nearly every day of the week — softball, bowling, flag football. He trained for a Tough Mudder race, which he completed last month with colleagues from Buckley. “He was a huge part of our unit, and this is a terrible loss,” said an Air Force sergeant who stopped by the memorial site near the theater. “The person that did this was an incredible coward.”
Gordon Cowden, 51, was the oldest of the victims. He was a smallbusiness owner raising four kids who lived with him part time: Kristian, 21, a student at Colorado State University; Weston, 20, attending the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy; Brooke, 17; and Cierra, 16. Two of his girls were in the theater with him that night. Cowden’s family described him as a loving father, a “quick-witted world traveler with a keen sense of humor,” an outdoorsman and “a true Texas gentleman that loved life and his family.” “He will be remembered for his devotion to his children and for always trying his best to do the right thing, no matter the obstacle,” they said. Cowden was laid to rest Friday in his native Texas, two days after a memorial service in downtown Denver. Cowden owned a real-estateappraisal business and loved to hunt, ski and tell funny stories, according to his obituary in the Austin American-Statesman. “Above all, he loved spending time with his four children,” it said.
8B» HEROES AMONG US
sunday, july 29, 2012 B denverpost.com B the denver post
EMMA G O O S | COM FORT FOR A STRANG ER
“I was terrified this would steal my faith in humanity” O By Eric Gorski The Denver Post
utside the theater, just as the first squad cars arrived, Emma Goos encountered the man who thought he had a hole in his head. He stood alone, his right arm limp, begging for help. He had short-cropped hair and a blue shirt. His face was so covered in blood, Emma couldn’t make out any distinguishable features. “Is there a hole in my head?” he said. She was no doctor. She was a college kid home for summer break, a girl with a nose ring and straight blond hair and a book of fairy tales in the bag she had left behind in the theater when she ran for her life. Blood poured from the right side of the man’s head and down his arm. He did not have a hole in his head. As best as Emma could tell, he had been grazed by a bullet. She thought how she might help him. “You’re OK,” the 19-year-old girl told the stranger. The outing was to be the beginning of a weekend birthday celebration for a friend. Six of them met for the premiere, Emma wearing a green striped sweater and purple hat, the color scheme of the Riddler. There was a buzz in the theater, a sense of communal anticipation, of seeing something first, when the rest of the world is asleep. Even after the shooting started, Goos thought it was a theater-sponsored stunt. She expected a character dressed as Batman to come down the stairs at any moment and punch out the villain. “Get down!” one of her friends yelled. Goos’ entire row hit the floor. When the gunman, several rows above them, paused, her group ran. She slipped on a pool of popcorn butter, banged her face on a seat and fell to the carpet. One of her shoes came off. Outside, the parking lot was chaos. The man was to her right. He was leaning against a patrol car that had just arrived. The police officers rushed past him, guns drawn, in pursuit of the shooter. “Help me,” the man said. The people closest stood against the theater’s brick wall, dumbstruck. “No one else had stopped to help him,” Goos said. “No one had even answered him or sort of acknowledged that he was covered in blood. If I was in his position, I would be terrified. I would have wanted someone to at least say, ‘Hi. You’re still alive. ... I’ll try to help you while I can.’ ” She took a closer look at his head wound. She saw tissue and cringed. “Is there a hole in my head?” She stuttered and stumbled. “You’re OK. I don’t think you’re going to die.” She helped the man remove his shirt. He couldn’t raise his right arm, so Goos lifted it for him. She pressed the blue cotton T-shirt against where a knot on his head had swelled to the size of a goose egg. “I had no idea what to do,” Goos said. “I had no idea whether telling him to put pressure on the wound was good. But I thought it was better than him standing there waiting for the paramedics alone.” Later, Goos considered what had caused her to stop and help. She thought about her mother, the woman who before Goos was born had been an emergency medical technician and a firefighter, someone who never seemed scared when her clumsy, reckless kid broke both arms falling off a scooter or busted her nose diving into a pool. She thought about her own coming of age as a budding actor at Hinkley High School in Aurora, where playing the role of Anita in “West Side Story” gave her license to be
Emma Goos, 19, escaped injury in the Aurora theater shooting when the gunman passed her row. Goos later stopped to comfort a man who had a wound to his head. She was never able to find out his name. Joe Amon, The Denver Post strong and independent too. She thought about her just-completed freshman year at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, of studying Greek philosophers and mathematicians, of Aristotle’s ideas about the virtuous man. She carries a book with her everywhere, always. On the night of the shooting, it was a volume of fairy tales by Oscar Wilde. She read it while on break from her job at a momand-pop pizza joint before the movie. “Is there a hole in my head?” No matter how Goos tried to reassure the man, how she answered differently, he repeated it again and again, like a record skipping. The shirt pressed to his head had become soaked with blood. Goos calmed the man down, helped him elevate his arm and told him she was going to look for something to replace the shirt and be right back.
By the time she returned, paramedics were swarming around the man. She walked by and nodded, but he probably didn’t see her. She never learned his name. She never found out what happened to him. Goos reached her mother on the phone and told her there had been a shooting, that she couldn’t find her friends. Her mother and stepfather live just a few minutes away and arrived before the police blockades went up. She found her friends, all unhurt. “That night, I was terrified this would steal my faith in humanity,” Goos said. “Everyone will live their life on a few basic principles of ‘I love my family, I love my neighbor.’ ... You will have a trust in other people. We all have the human condition. We all have to establish some kind of common ground between us, and the violation of that
common ground is really hard to come back from for people who have lost loved ones, who have been injured, to those who got out all right and wonder why.” A couple of days later, Goos went to the Aurora police station. She had been told to come there to look for what she had left behind. Her bag with the Oscar Wilde book. Her lost shoe. Someone brought out a box of shoes, so many tossed together, scuffed and covered with dirt or worse. It reminded Goos of the piles of shoes belonging to victims of the Nazi concentration camps. “Symbols of anonymous suffering,” she called them. She found her lost shoe and went home. Eric Gorski: 303-954-1971, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/egorski
L AW E N F O RC E M E N T | AC T IO NS SP EA K LO U D LY
“We’re loading patients into back of PD cars” By Eric Gorski The Denver Post
“Do I have permission to take some of these victims via car? I have a whole bunch of people shot out here and no rescue.” — an unidentified Aurora police officer At the scene of the largest mass shooting in U.S. history, police assumed roles both familiar and not: running toward danger to find the shooter, figuring out whether he acted alone, answering questions from the panicked and injured, using their squad cars as ambulances. Aurora officers arrived within 90 seconds of the dispatch center getting deluged with the first calls at 12:39 a.m., authorities have said. Because of a judge’s gag order preventing authorities from discussing the case, Aurora police declined requests to interview officers who helped the injured at the Century 16 theaters. Bits and pieces of their stories reside in the memories of victims and hospital staff and on the terrifying dispatch tapes from that night. “I have a party shot here. I need rescue hot.” “I’m taking one male to the hospital in my car.” “Let Aurora South know cruiser 6 is in route. One critical, one semi-critical.”
“FYI, right now we’re loading patients into back of PD cars to get them transported.” Outside the theater, Aurora police Officer Nigel Labarrie was among a group of strangers who comforted and held the hand of 18-year-old Bonnie Kate Pourciau, who had been shot in the leg. Labarrie helped carry her to a waiting patrol car, and another Aurora police officer rushed her and a family to University of Colorado Hospital. “He didn’t care if I would sue him,” Pourciau said from her hospital bed last week, a yellow daisy tucked in her reddishbrown hair. “He just did the right thing. He did it, man. He got me there.” Labarrie, an 18-year veteran of the department, visited her in the hospital several times before Pourciau boarded a medical flight back to her home in Louisiana on Thursday night. One witness to the massacre, Jacob King, described someone carrying out a motionless little girl, covered in blood. A police officer took the girl, set her in his squad car and sped away, he said. Dr. Frank Lansville, medical director of emergency services at Medical Center of Aurora, said an Aurora policeman with emergency medical training apparently took over some of the earliest triage on the scene, helping sort out the injured amid crowds of moviegoers coming out and crowds of police moving in. “That’s a very courageous thing,” Lansville said.
WE WILL REMEMBER JESSICA GHAWI
Jessica Ghawi grew up a hockey fan in football-crazed Texas. The 24-year-old wanted to be a sports journalist and came to Colorado to pursue that goal. She worked here for 104.3 The Fan, where she impressed people with her liveliness and hard work. When fire destroyed many homes in Colorado last month, Ghawi decided to start collecting donated hockey equipment for kids who had lost theirs. “She wanted to help. That’s the type of heart she had,” her brother Jordan Ghawi told 9News. In June, Ghawi was in Toronto, where she walked out of a shoppingmall food court moments before a gunman shot seven people there. Writing as Jessica Redfield in a June 5 blog entry, she described how that reminded her “how blessed I am for each second I am given. “Every second of every day is a gift,” she wrote.
John Thomas Larimer stood ready to be deployed to dangerous corners of the world for two simple reasons, his girlfriend recalled: to protect his country and to save others from harm. The 27-year-old Navy sailor died shielding his girlfriend, Kelley Vojtsek, from a barrage of bullets in a place that is supposed to be safe. Larimer will be remembered for his kindness and position as an “outstanding shipmate,” friends said. “A valued member of our Navy team, he will be missed by all who knew him,” said his commanding officer. Larimer joined the Navy in June 2011 and was a cryptologic technician 3rd class. For the past year, he had been stationed at the U.S. Fleet Cyber Command station at Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora. The youngest of five children, Larimer was from Crystal Lake, Ill., a suburb of Chicago.
the denver post B denverpost.com B sunday, july 29, 2012
HEROES AMONG US «9B
JAR E L L B RO O KS | H E K N E W H E H A D TO H E L P
Jarell Brooks helped a mother and her two children escape. The 18-year-old was shot in the leg as he put himself between the gunman and the family. Joe Amon, The Denver Post
“You never know what you’re going to do in a situation” By Eric Gorski The Denver Post
arell Brooks was raised to fear God, respect women and make good decisions. Confident and calm, the son of a pastor, he punctuates answers with “Yes, sir,” and won’t let girls pick up the check, ever. He rapped about sandboxes and swings when he was in fourth grade and wrote love songs when he was in middle school. On the night of July 19, meeting a friend at the Century Aurora 16 theater, Jarell was standing on the cusp of manhood — 18 years old and 6 feet, 4 inches tall, about to start college and a new chapter. He noticed a young family coming up the aisle, a man and woman in their mid-20s, the woman holding the hand of a little girl in a Spider-Man cap, the man cradling an infant. All wore Batman shirts. Jarell did not question — as others have — why parents would bring such small children to a violent midnight movie. He thought it was nice to see a family doing something together. Around him, moviegoers played cards to pass the time. Jarell played a game of hangman on his Android phone.
The next time he saw the young mother, the room was filled with smoke, people were screaming, and hard decisions were being made. Their seats were near the rear of the theater, about six rows down from the projection room. When the shooting started, Jarell ducked behind the seat in front of him and made sure his friend was safe. As he started to crawl toward the exit, he bumped into the young mother. She was clutching her children, too scared to move. “It’s just me and my two kids,” she said. Up until that moment, Jarell said, he was of singular focus, thinking only of getting himself out. Seeing the young family, it was as if he was jarred into remembering who he was raised to be. “You never know what you’re going to do in a situation,” he said. “For someone to say anything about it, … unless you are in that moment, in that crunch time, you never know what you are going to do. “When someone is shooting, you get out,” he continued. “But when I saw her, I kind of had to take a 180. You have to help this woman. You can’t live with yourself knowing a family was hurt or killed.” Jarell crawled alongside the woman and children, shielding them from the gunman firing into the crowd from the other side of
the theater. He began to guide them out, crawling little by little. When the woman began to stand, so did Jarell. There was another flash. Almost immediately, he felt a sharp pain in his left leg. He tried to steady himself and fell. He saw blood and a hole in his leg. The bullet had entered his thigh, turned and danced, and exited below his knee. The shrapnel struck the woman he was shielding, spraying her right leg from the ankle to the upper thigh. He tried to stand up, move the woman and her children along, and keep a hand on his wound, all at the same time. Then all were out, safe but separated, Jarell hopping on one foot and losing a lot of blood. Strangers helped him to a car, paramedics tended to his injuries, and he was taken to Denver Health. The next day, as news reporters sought out survivors’ stories, Jarell learned the names of the young family he helped save: a 25-year-old schoolteacher named Patricia Legarreta; her 4-year-old daughter, Azariah; and 4-month-old Ethan. The children were unharmed. In the terror of the theater, the three had become separated from Patricia’s fiancé and Ethan’s father, Jamie Rohrs, also 25. In interviews, Rohrs has described hur-
dling over a row of seats and running for his life, disoriented and unable to find his family. “I don’t blame him for that at all,” said Jarell, who graduated from Overland High School this year and will begin studies at Metropolitan State University in Denver this fall. “Someone is shooting in a closed space. His life is on the line. You’re in a panic situation.” Jarell’s actions have inspired tributes on Facebook and a fundraising campaign to help cover his medical and school expenses. The leg injury is keeping him from his catering job at Elitch Gardens. On the Sunday after the shooting, the young family Jarell helped rescue attended services at New Life Worship Center in Commerce City, where Jarell’s father, Jeffrey, is the senior pastor. During a prayer of thanksgiving, the family came forward. God had a plan in putting Jarell where he did, the pastor said. Back at his family’s apartment in Aurora, Jarell Brooks rested and recovered, replaying in his mind the choices he made in theater 9. Eric Gorski: 303-954-1971, email@example.com or twitter.com/egorski
WE WILL REMEMBER MATT McQUINN
Matt McQuinn, who had moved to Colorado with his girlfriend just a few months ago, died shielding her from gunfire. When the shooting started, McQuinn, 27, protected Samantha Yowler. The two had worked together at a Target store in Ohio, then both transferred in November to work for a Target in Aurora. Yowler’s brother, Nick, also helped form a shield to protect her. He was uninjured, while Samantha was shot in the leg. McQuinn was shot three times. “I’m not surprised at all about Matt,” said David Kasel, who went to school with McQuinn. “He was very loyal , a good friend.” McQuinn graduated from Vandalia-Butler High School, in a suburb of Dayton, Ohio, in 2004. He met Yowler while the two were working at a Target in Springfield, Ohio. McQuinn was active in the Maiden Lane Church of God in Springfield.
People knew her as “Cayla.” A 23-year-old who described herself as simple and independent, Micayla Medek was “just trying to get her life together while still having fun.” A joyful spirit, Medek had a love for hot pink, “Hello Kitty” and the magic of fairies. She spent every Thursday night eating dinner with her dad. Medek, a graduate of William C. Hinkley High School in Aurora, worked as a Subway “sandwich artist.” She took classes at the Community College of Aurora through last fall. Those who knew Medek loved her tolerant philosophy of life, which was captured in a quote from her printed in the program at her memorial: “We’re all a little weird. And life’s a little weird. And when we find someone whose weirdness is compatible with ours, we join up in mutual weirdness and call it love.” Medek, the youngest of three children, was known for her radiant spirit, infectious laughter and willingness to help others, family and friends said.
10B» HEROES AMONG US
sunday, july 29, 2012 B denverpost.com B the denver post
ME DI CA L P E R SO N N EL | T H E L O N G E ST N I G H T
Angel Chavez, a nurse at Denver Health
Dr. Comilla Sasson, University of Colorado Hospital
Dr. Gilbert Pineda, Medical Center of Aurora
Dr. Tien Vu, Children’s Hospital Colorado
Cheryl Stiles, a nurse at Children’s Hospital Colorado
“You’re running on adrenaline, instinct. And flat-out guts.” By Michael Booth The Denver Post
By Michael Booth The Denver Post
By Jennifer Brown The Denver Post
By Karen Augé The Denver Post
ed and blue police lights bouncing off the windows of the emergency bay, Dr. Comilla Sasson reached for gloves. She didn’t usually carry extras. But suddenly a cop cruiser was backing into University of Colorado Hospital, full of bodies gushing blood. And then another cruiser. And then another. Sasson stuffed 50 pairs of gloves into pockets of her scrubs. This was not going to end anytime soon. “At some point, it was the longest night of my life. And at some point, it was ‘How did that five hours go by?’ ” she said. Sasson and her shift partner that Friday morning, Dr. Barbara Blok, spent the next hours triaging 23 victims from Aurora’s movie-theater shooting. Surrounded by trauma surgeons, charge nurses, orthopedic specialists, radiology techs and cleanup crews, they pointed fingers, steered gurneys and tried to bolster the spirits of first-year residents three weeks out of medical school. And peeled glove after glove after soiled glove. It’s the quantity of blood that sticks in Sasson’s mind. Blood from head wounds. From shattered limbs. From chest cavities opened to stem internal bleeding. Underneath all that blood was more to worry about. A bullet powers in and bounces, doing more damage on the way out. Or worse, stays inside and threatens veins and tissue. Sasson describes her triage duty as a constant circling. A patient with a pulse, talking, will suddenly crash from unseen internal bleeding. The ER doctor must cycle around and around the arrayed beds, heading off that crash. University’s ER was already full and on divert status, with 10 more in the waiting area, when the shooting started just after 12:30 a.m. With gunshot trauma, you make room. The first hour is the golden hour for those on the brink. “The first nine to 10 patients were all in the resuscitation area,” she said. “More than five could not tell us their names.” Aurora police cars kept rolling in, Sasson remembers looking from indoors to outdoors. “These people are really sick,” she thought, “and I’ve got two minutes to figure it out before the next one comes in.” Six hours after it began, at a 7 a.m. shift change, Sasson let out a deep breath and said to herself, “Wait — what did I just see?” But inside that six hours? “You’re running on adrenaline, instinct,” Sasson said. “And flat-out guts.”
he first inkling of what was in store came rolling up to the Children’s Hospital Colorado emergency room without warning — and without lights and sirens — a little before 1 a.m. A car — not an ambulance or police car, just some ordinary car that not long ago had transported people to a movie theater — drove up. Inside was a passenger who had been shot. “That’s when we were told — and it’s a little fuzzy now — but they said there’d been a shooting in a theater,” said Dr. Tien Vu. Soon, the victims came too fast for Vu to track. Cheryl Stiles’ phone rang just after 1 a.m. A self-professed night owl, she had been asleep only an hour, and she had already put in a full shift the day before. Stiles started her nursing career at Children’s 25 years ago — and 24½ of those have been in emergency medicine. Now that she is director of emergency services, those late-night calls are part of the job. In Colorado’s hierarchy of trauma care, Children’s has the highest ranking. For children, that usually means a car accident or a fall. To get multiple gunshot wounds within an hour probably had never happened, Vu said. Stiles was in her car within minutes of getting the call. When she arrived at the hospital, Stiles said, the first thing she saw was a group of staffers standing just outside the emergency-room doors, in the ambulance bay. “The team was in a circle. Some were holding hands, some hugging,” Stiles said. They had just needed a moment, she said. Stiles joined them briefly, then they all walked together through the glass doors back to the emergency room. Stiles remembers a nurse torn because a patient was afraid to have the lights turned off or be left alone. She held his hand while a colleague did whatever clinical things were required. Twelve hours after it began, Vu’s shift was over; Stiles still had seven more hours — her scheduled shift — ahead. Vu got into her car and headed north on Peoria Street. She had gone only a couple of blocks when she saw red lights clustered around a brick building. “I went home and turned on the TV,” she said. “That’s when the enormity of what happened hit me.” It is also when she learned the red lights were gathered at the booby-trapped home of the man suspected of causing the carnage. She turned off the TV, kissed her 2year-old daughter and, exhausted, went to bed, hoping finally to get some sleep. She didn’t.
good portion of Angel Chavez’s job is to be calm when she realizes the patient coming out of the ambulance has three fingers blown off by a gun. And to swallow shock when the captain’s chair of the next ambulance holds a girl sitting upright and bleeding, gunshot wound to the chest. And not to let a burgeoning massacre 10 miles away distract her team from the usual patients facing death outside the spotlight. Chavez was the night charge nurse in the Denver Health emergency room when the theater shootings began. Alerted by dispatchers around 1 a.m., she checked which ER rooms could be safely cleared and how many hallway spaces were open for overflow victims. “We could have taken 20 ourselves,” Chavez said, with potentially more in the children’s ER. All without forgetting the current traumas: A patient in deep septic shock who would later die. Head injuries to a helmetless motorcycle rider. Early on a Friday morning in summer, the Denver ER is often stuffed with the aftermath of bar fights, car wrecks and gang posturing. One of the tricks is to not set everyone in motion immediately, no matter how strong the instinct, said Dr. Chris Colwell, Denver Health’s emergencymedicine chief. He was woken up by cellphone calls after midnight, but part of his job is to think three days down the road. Colwell, who treated students on the ground at Columbine High School’s shootings in 1999, allowed himself one brief flash that Friday’s call was “eerily similar”: dozens of young people shot in a place that should have been safe. In the next moment, Colwell felt lucky there was something he could do about it. Just a few hours after 1 a.m., the ER bays were quiet again, and parents of the theater victims checked in the hospital lobby to meet social workers and doctors. Chavez looked forward to the Saturday yoga class she takes to slough off stress and thought of the girl missing her fingers. Who was, surprisingly, cheerful. “She was so happy it wasn’t worse,” Chavez said. The trauma-response culture is all about “What did we learn?” “It’s so positive, it makes you feel you could be positive as well, in something like this,” Chavez said.
r. Gilbert Pineda grabbed a full bottle of water and chugged all of it in a few gulps. He shook his head a couple of times. “Focus. Focus. Focus,” he said, only to himself. Pineda walked down the narrow, stark-white corridor of the emergency department and added up the scene. A man with a bloody bandage on his head. One patient intubated, on life support. Another man with “graphic” gunshot wounds to his arms and legs. Patients lined up in the hallway, including a man with a belt wrapped around his thigh like a tourniquet. A man screaming: “I need pain medication!” More screams coming from one of the rooms. Pineda told himself not to let the yelling distract him — just because patients are loud doesn’t mean they’re critical. He saw a doctor in a white “moon suit” preparing to decontaminate people exposed to a noxious gas. Eighteen patients, 13 with gunshot wounds. Before walking into the Medical Center of Aurora early that Friday morning, Pineda had been up 20 hours. He had worked a 12-hour shift, then gone to dinner with his daughter who was in town from college. He was as tired as he had ever remembered being and went to bed at about 11:45 p.m. Thursday. Pineda was asleep for about an hour when his phone rang. It was the hospital’s emergency medical chief, Dr. Frank Lansville. His voice was direct and solemn. “Gilbert, there has been a mass shooting in Aurora. There may be as many as 20 patients. I need you to go to the emergency department.” Pineda slipped on a pair of Levis and grabbed his medical bag. As he was leaving, he thought, “Boy, what an idiot you are. You are in your car, backing out of your driveway, and this is something that’s been a dream.” He turned on the EMS radio in his car. What he heard snapped him alert. Pineda went from one patient to the next, unwrapping bandages and checking for signs that shotgun pellets had entered the chest or the bloodstream. One man had 20 pieces of buckshot in his body. Pineda, the hospital’s EMS medical director, said it’s those kind of days that remind him why he chose emergency medicine. “This is what I trained to do,” he said. “When something like this happens, you just click into this mode of ‘Wow. This is what I like to do.’ Not that I want to see people injured, but if they are injured, I want to have the opportunity to take care of them.”
WE WILL REMEMBER VERONICA MOSER-SULLIVAN
Innocent and beautiful, her aunt says. Veronica was a 6-year-old, vibrant, excitable child who a few days before she died was chatting away about learning how to swim. The blond, blue-eyed girl attended Holly Ridge Elementary School and loved to play dress-up. Her mother, critically wounded that night in the theater, was pregnant and later miscarried. Veronica had gone to the movie with her mother and her mother’s boyfriend. “Veronica was just so full of joy every day. She loved life, no matter what we did,” her father, Ian Sullivan, told London’s The Sun. “She was the sweetest, most innocent, angelic little child anyone could ever ask for.” Her father took her on a camping trip near Georgetown a few days before Veronica died, he told the newspaper. They slept in a tent, went fishing, saw elk and deer and cooked over a campfire.
Friends and family will miss his big heart and his bear hugs. Alex Sullivan was a loving husband, a good-humored guy, a comic-book lover and film fanatic who could quote “Caddyshack” from start to finish. He died on his 27th birthday, keeping a family tradition started at age 6 to go to the movies that day. A year ago last Sunday, he married his wife, Cassie. Sullivan stood 6-feet-4 and weighed about 280 pounds. He played football and wrestled before graduating from Grandview High School in 2003. Later, he went to culinary school. Sullivan worked at a Red Robin restaurant and went to the Aurora theater with several of his co-workers that fateful night; seven of them were injured. Sullivan was the family peacemaker. He hugged his sister each time they met and loved his wife so much it showed on his face. “A lot of my memories growing up, we always had a great time together and had fun and played and climbed trees, and I was right there with him on everything,” said his sister, Megan.
the denver post B denverpost.com B sunday, july 29, 2012
HEROES AMONG US «11B
C H RI S LA KOTA | H E R A N I N TO T H E AT E R 9
Chris Lakota, who was watching a different movie when the Aurora shootings began, went into theater 9 to help Bonnie Kate Pourciau escape. RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post
“I wanted to do something good” By Jennifer Brown The Denver Post
is first reaction wasn’t fear. It was anger. Chris Lakota is a mixed martial artist and a sword fighter. He was once shot in the arm with a 9mm pistol after shoving a guy who was throwing gang signs, he said. He has a scar on his stomach where he was stabbed and a tattoo on his biceps with the initials of a childhood friend shot to death in a gang fight when Lakota was 17. So when a shaken and sweating young theater employee stood in front of the credits at the end of the new Spider-Man movie and told everyone to evacuate immediately, Lakota didn’t listen. He saw the people streaming out of theater 9. He knew someone was shooting in there; the theater employee had already told him it wasn’t a fire. Instead of running out, he went in. He ran in. To theater 9. In the dark and smoke, the first person Lakota saw who needed help was Bonnie Kate Pourciau. The 18-
year-old from Baton Rouge, La., was struggling down the last few steps toward the screen, her knee ripped apart by a gunshot. Lakota threw her arm around his neck and carried her out of the theater. Outside, he put a sweat shirt under her head and wrapped another one around her knee. He grabbed a bottle of water from a man who passed by, held Bonnie Kate’s head up and put the bottle to her lips. He yelled for an ambulance. “It was just pandemonium,” he said. People were screaming. Running for their cars. One man’s hand was blown apart. Another man’s shinbone stuck out of his leg. A man moaned in agony. The fire alarm pulsated, three intense beeps at a time, on endless repeat. Lakota’s friend started taking a video with his phone. It begins as Lakota is crouched over Bonnie Kate and ends as he and a couple of others carry her to the front seat of a patrol car. Bonnie Kate was quiet when Lakota was with her. She barely made a sound, just moaned a couple of times. “Think about positive things,” Lakota told
her. “Think about your summer.” He told her not to look at her leg, which at first was spouting blood as fast as a pour from a bottle of wine, Lakota said. “Just keep your eyes up.” He stayed with her the whole time. When Lakota, 36, ran into theater 9, he wasn’t focused on carrying someone out, he said. His initial thought was to take out the “coward” who was shooting people. But then he saw Bonnie Kate. “I wanted to do something good,” said Lakota, whose full name is Brent Christopher Thunderhorse Lakota. “If you see bad, and you don’t do anything, I feel it’s just as bad as the evil itself. “It felt like everything in my life prepared me to go in there.” After about 15 minutes in front of the theater, police officers asked whether Lakota could move Bonnie Kate behind the complex, where ambulances were supposed to arrive. He put her arm around his neck again and carried her around the building. She accidentally scratched his cheek with her fingernail, drawing blood. He made a joke
about them both having scars from that night. She felt as light as feathers, he said. They waited behind the theater for several more minutes, Lakota said. And when he slid her into the front seat of a patrol car, he patted her knee. He buckled her seat belt. “Good luck to you. I hope I see you again.” Lakota tracked Bonnie Kate down at University of Colorado Hospital last week. Her mother answered the phone when he called. “Bonnie’s been looking for you,” he recalled her saying. When he went to visit her, he brought gifts from his American Indian heritage — a white-tailed hawk feather, a dreamcatcher and, to keep good spirits close, sweetgrass. Lakota’s wife won free tickets to the movie that night and encouraged him and his friend to use them. Now, he feels that he was meant to go. “I wouldn’t change it for anything,” he said. Jennifer Brown: 303-954-1593, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/jbrowndpost
WE WILL REMEMBER ALEX TEVES
Amid the onslaught of bullets, shotgun blasts and general chaos, Amanda Lindgren said her boyfriend, Alex Teves, never hesitated to shield her with his body during the deadly attack that ended his life. “He was my angel that night, but he was my angel every day I knew him. … I’m broken,” Lindgren, 24, told ABC News. Teves grew up in the Phoenix area, graduated from Desert Vista High School and received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Arizona. He worked as a mentor at Arizona and the University of Denver, where he earned a master’s degree in counseling psychology. “Alex’s last act of heroism is a testament to his character, his selflessness and unending compassion for those he loved,” his family said in a statement. “Alex had the heart of a lion, but it was made of gold, always willing to help anyone.”
Rebecca Wingo was a mother, daughter, sister and friend. But, according to her former husband, Robert Wingo, with whom she had two daughters, she was more than that. “A lot of people say, ‘Oh, this person was amazing.’ It wasn’t that; it was that Rebecca was a catalyst. She was the person who walked into a room, and then everything is going to happen,” Robert Wingo said. “She would brighten a room and take you in a direction. Rebecca, she kind of had her own gravity to her, and that’s why so many people like her.” Wingo was fluent in Mandarin and worked as a translator for the Air Force for nearly 10 years. When she was killed, the 32-year-old was working at Joe’s Crab Shack in Aurora, and she had been attending college since 2009, working toward an associate of arts degree and hoping to become a social worker.
Heroes Among Us: Special Denver Post Section