AURORA, Colo. — There was a thump, the emergency-exit door swinging open. Then a flood of light pouring into the darkness. A figure wearing a gas mask and black body armor stepped into the theater.
The man paused. In the second row, Jennifer Seeger thought he might have stood there a full minute.
“Maybe he’s just dressing up and being silly,” she thought. After all, this was a midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises,” Hollywood’s latest Batman movie. If there was ever a place where a masked stranger in black might not cause alarm, this was it.
Police would later say that the stranger — allegedly James Holmes, 24 — seemed to have prepared meticulously. In that moment, he waited.
Then, “he took his grenade and he threw it into the crowd,” Seeger said, referring to a canister of an unknown gas. “Then he took his first gunshot, and that’s when everybody knew he wasn’t playing around.”
The rampage that began in that moment early Friday morning killed 12 people and injured 58 others in this middle-class neighborhood outside Denver. The mass shooting echoed earlier attacks — Columbine, Fort Hood, Virginia Tech — where madness descended without warning, jolting the nation and setting off a search into the background of an apparently troubled assailant.
This time, the suspect is a graduate student at the University of Colorado at Denver who was in the process of withdrawing from his neuroscience program. Police captured him just outside the theater without a fight.
The only near-certainty is that the gunman acted alone and not as part of a terrorist group or other conspiracy. Federal law enforcement sources said that Holmes bought a ticket, entered the theater, then left and returned through the emergency exit.
“We are not looking for any other suspects,” Aurora Police Chief Dan Oates told reporters. “We are confident that he acted alone, but we will do a thorough investigation to make sure that is the case.”
Seeger and other witnesses recounted scenes of chaos and bloodshed inside Theater 9.
Chris Ramos, 20, a Starbucks baristo seated in the fifth row, said the attack began about 20 minutes into the movie.
“The first sign that something was wrong was when the guy next to me got shot,” said Ramos, who attended the premiere with his sister and two friends. “I shielded my 17-year-old sister on the floor. I started crying, not because I was afraid, but because the tear gas started to burn my eyes.”
The gunman looked calm and uttered not a word as he walked up an aisle, firing as he went, moviegoers said, and igniting panic.
Ramos said that he was kicked in the face several times by people trying to get up off the floor and out of the aisle. He estimated that the shooting lasted about a minute and a half.
Seeger said that the assailant pointed a gun at her, and that she had an odd thought in the terrifying pause that ensued. “I was like, you know, ‘I can’t die in a “Twilight” T-shirt,’ ” said Seeger, 22, who is in training to be a firefighter and an emergency medical technician. She dived away, then lay still as the gunman walked up and down a side aisle. She said a shell casing rolled down the sloped theater floor and she felt its heat against her face.
Salina Jordan, 19, was in an adjoining theater watching the same film when she heard a series of pops. “It was so in sync we thought it was part of the movie,” she said. “We thought it was a special effect because they were trying to do it up big for opening night.”
Then bullets began piercing the wall. A teenager to Jordan’s right was shot in the jaw. A fire alarm went off.
The theater complex, set in the parking lot of a large shopping mall, is just a few blocks from the Aurora police headquarters. The first of scores of responding officers arrived 90 seconds after receiving the first 911 call at 12:39 a.m., authorities said.
In the lobby near the concession stands, SWAT teams trained their guns on Theater 9. They directed frightened patrons to remain in place — or to run for the exits — as gunfire started and stopped. Jordan said she watched a police officer carry out the inert body of a girl who appeared to be about 9.
“She had been shot through her stomach, and the blood was just coming out,” Jordan said. “Her body was so limp. And her face — there was no life in her face.’’
Police almost immediately arrested Holmes, who was next to his white Hyundai outside a rear entrance of the theater. Oates said he was wearing a ballistic helmet, bulletproof vest, leggings, throat protector, groin protector, gas mask and protective gloves.