By Gary Strauss, USA TODAY
The carnage lasted just minutes, but for many people shot during Colorado's movie theater massacre, the melee remains a haunting, slow-motion horror film with chilling scenes of frenzied mayhem and a soundtrack of panic and pain-filled screams.
One month has elapsed since 12 people were killed and 57 injured at Aurora's Cineplex 16, one of the bloodiest shooting sprees in U.S. history. But the terror and pandemonium that enveloped the packed midnight premiere remains as raw and vivid as if it occurred moments ago.
Many survivors, particularly the wounded, are unable to shake recurring visions and nightmares of gun muzzle flashes, blood-stained victims and the wails of those trampled by others fleeing the darkened theater.
"It's been horrible," says Marcus Weaver, operations manager for Bud's Warehouse, a Denver non-profit thrift store. "Every day, early in the morning or at night, I have a movie in my head of what happened. I wake up every night with nightmares. I don't think it will ever go away."
Weaver, 41, had gunshot pellets removed from his right shoulder two weeks ago. He's still mourning the loss of best friend Rebecca Wingo, whose wounds were fatal.
Weaver is part of the unlucky melting pot of family, friends, loved ones, workmates and travelers felled by a hail of bullets and shotgun fire, ranging from 4-month-old Ethan Rohrs, treated for minor injuries, to 51-year-old Gordon Cowden, the oldest among the slain.
Aurora police quickly arrested James Holmes, a University of Colorado doctoral program dropout, and confiscated a military-style assault rifle, pump-action shotgun and two Glock pistols that authorities say were bought before a methodically planned attack.
Holmes, 24, faces more than 140 counts of murder and attempted murder. His court-appointed public defender has said he has mental issues, which could be the foundation of an insanity defense.
The victims have a range of medical and emotional problems that, for some, might never be resolved. While some hospitals treating victims say they will limit or cover medical bills, many of the wounded are uninsured and are counting on victims' relief funds, benefits and donations.
Budding standup comic Caleb Medley lost his right eye and remains in a medically induced coma, his prognosis uncertain. Family members say his care could cost $2 million. Aspiring nurse Ashley Moser, whose 6-year-old daughter, Veronica, was killed, later miscarried. Moser's spine is severed and she's paralyzed from the waist down. Stefan Moton, whose spine was also severed, is paralyzed and needs ventilators to breath.
Farrah Soudani, who lost her spleen, a kidney and part of her left calf, is learning to walk again. And Adan Avila, whose shattered right leg had to be amputated, will need a prosthetic before he can return to his landscaping job.
Among those with less severe wounds, several, like Weaver, are back at work, gingerly attempting to resume lives while grappling with twitchy wariness of crowds and sudden noises. Some, like Nickelas Gallup, grazed near his left eye as he shielded his girlfriend, are neither emotionally nor physically healed.
Gallup, scheduled to have a bullet fragment removed today, is plagued by headaches and flashbacks. He had to give up his management job at Helga's German Restaurant and Deli, which is within view of Cineplex 16.
"It's just too close to the theater. I'd relive it over and over. It was just too much," says Gallup, 31. "I'll never forget the (rifle) barrel swinging up ... and the green laser sight on that Glock. He was targeting people as they tried to run. He targeted people in their seats."
Air Force reservist Munirih Gravelly, recovering from a hand wound, is back at McConnell Air Force Base near Wichita. She was temporarily assigned to Colorado's Buckley Air Force Base with fellow reservist Jesse Childress, killed as he tried to protect a friend. "I replay the shootings all the time, thinking there might have been something I could do," says Gravelly, 31. "All I can remember is how dark, loud and suffocating it was, how completely frozen I felt."
Gravelly served eight years in the Air Force, unscathed. Now she faces every day with doubt. "Two tours in the desert and I got shot at the movies. I'm in slight disbelief every time I think about it," she says. "I try to remain calm when my mind starts to wander because, being wary is one thing, being a paranoid wreck is another."
The echoes of mass shooting
Therapists say flashbacks and ongoing fears are common among mass-shooting survivors at Colorado's Columbine High School, Virginia Tech and the Army base at Fort Hood, Texas. Typically, survivors experience anxiety, numbness or anger that hampers their daily lives, says psychiatrist Frank Ochberg, a post-traumatic stress disorder specialist who counseled Columbine High staffers in April 1999 after seniors Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 13 people before taking their own lives.
Left untreated, trauma can damage and hurt work and personal relationships, although the frequency and intensity of flashbacks diminishes over time with treatment, Ochberg says.
Columbine High grad Sam Granillo, who escaped death as a 17-year-old junior by hiding in the school kitchen, says last month's theater massacre brought back old fears.
"It's really hard for me seeing people go through what I went through," says Granillo, a filmmaker making Columbine: Wounded Minds, a documentary focused on survivors. He still has chronic nightmares. "It's like it happened yesterday," says Granillo, 30. As a teen, he briefly sought therapy but was unable to express his feelings. His advice: "Don't be afraid to talk. You can't live in fear all the time."
Louis Duran, 18, fears he might never shake what happened at the theater. "This is going to be stuck in my mind for the rest of my life," says Duran, home recuperating from 30 shotgun pellet wounds. He has recurring nightmares.
"I'm in the dark and someone is trying to hurt me, then I wake up panicked and scared. And when I hear a loud bang outside, I jump for no reason," says the May graduate of Eaglecrest High School near Aurora.
Covered with blood from his head wounds and fighting off shock, Duran managed to phone his parents twice. "I called because I thought I was going to die there," he says. His mother, Marian, initially thought the gunshots and screams in the background were from The Dark Knight Rises, which continued playing during the attack. She didn't know if he was alive until she'd scrambled to several area hospitals.
Eaglecrest classmate Ryan Lumba, who nearly bled to death after taking a shotgun round to his chest, is at home, too, but like Duran, his work and college plans are sidetracked. His family is already going through hard times. Antonio, his father, remains partially paralyzed from a 2011 stroke. Remy, his mother, was diagnosed with breast cancer a few weeks later.
Lumba says he's anxious much of the time, unable to shake the memory of shotgun pellets pummeling his body, marked by a surgical scar running from his upper chest to pubic bone. "They felt so hot - there was blood all over the place. I was so scared, I just couldn't get the fact out of my head that I was going to die," Lumba says. He almost did.
"Ryan was bleeding to death when he went to the operating room," says surgeon Gordon Lindberg of the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Center, who operated twice to stem blood loss and patch 18 holes in Lumba's small intestine. Lindberg was among many staffers tending to 26 victims. The fatality rate would have been "much higher," Lindberg says, had the shooter's high-velocity assault rifle - which had a 100-round capacity drum - not jammed.
Hospital personnel at Anschutz and other medical centers, and other first-responders, are also grappling with the fallout and processing the event.
"There have been some emotional debriefings," Lindberg says. "We're still talking about it."
Gateway High School senior Zachary Golditch was hit by a bullet that passed through an adjoining theater wall. He was treated and released later that morning.
The 6-foot-5, 260-pound offensive lineman is a 2013 Colorado State University recruit. After winning the Class 5A state discus title last spring, he doesn't appear thrown off course by the shootings. "I've got my friends, school and football to keep me busy," says Golditch, 17. "I am just fortunate that I am still here."
Even so, the Aurora School District is bracing for fallout. Of hundreds at the multiplex July 20, more than 160 were Aurora students or staffers, including recent Gateway grad Alexander "AJ" Boik, who died.
"When you go through something like this, people react differently. It's not a week or month or year," says school Superintendent John Barry, a former Gulf War fighter pilot and retired Air Force major general.
Barry served at the Pentagon when it was hit by a hijacked airliner on 9/11 and led an inquiry of 2003's Columbia space shuttle explosion. "Some people react well to tragedy. Others are steady-Eddy but falter after a few months. Some are up and down for weeks. For some, it could be years," Barry says.
Before opening the school year two weeks ago, Barry hired a manager to oversee a year-long crisis coordination effort, sought pediatricians with trauma expertise and called in extra psychologists to assist students and staff.
A years-long recovery
Some victim's families have turned to faith for comfort. Pastor Chris Hill, whose Potter's Hill Baptist congregation meets near Cineplex 16, says several congregants were at the theater July 20 while others are friends or related to victims, including Moton's mother, Paula.
Ministers and grief counselors are helping, but "it will be a long time before we are back to normal," Hill says. "The 24-hour news cycle moves on. But some folks at ground zero in Aurora will be dealing with this for many, many years."
The massacre did manage to forge new friendships and solidify long-standing bonds.
Allie Young, 19, credits best friend Stephanie Davies, 21, with saving her life. Young was struck several times, including a wound that opened a neck artery. As shots rang out, Davies applied pressure to stem the bleeding, then carried Young out.
"She just looked me right in the eyes and told me, 'Steph, you need to run,' " Davies said. "She's my best friend. It just wasn't an option."
Yousef Gharbi, 16, shot in the head, visited Soudani while they were hospitalized. They exchanged bracelets and T-shirts.
Pals Carey Rottman, 27, and Pierce O'Farrill, 28, were both hurt as they tried to crouch for cover. Rottman, hit in the leg, cried out for help when he made it outside. Teen Stephanie Rodriguez, recalling a scene from Grey's Anatomy, took off her belt and made him a tourniquet.
O'Farrill, shot in the foot, chest and arm, befriended Bonnie Kate Pourciau, an 18-year-old from Louisiana on an adjacent hospital stretcher with wounds on one leg and knee damage on the other. Awaiting treatment, they prayed together and later visited during their hospital stays.
Like Pourciau, Stephen Barton was just passing through town. After graduating from Syracuse University, he was on a cross-country bike tour. After pedaling 80 miles, he was taking a break with a friend at the theater. Wounded in the chest and neck, he's grateful to be alive. "Every morning when I see the scars, I can be reminded that you have to live life to the fullest," says Barton, 22.
Weaver isn't there, just yet.
"People are reaching out to me, and I want to let them know how I'm feeling. But I'm conflicted," Weaver says. "The more I talk, the more I relive it, and I hate reliving it."