Aurora (Colorado), July 20: A dark night descended on America as the Dark Knight rose on screens across the world.
A gunman in gas mask and dressed head to toe in body armour killed 12 persons at a midnight premiere of the new Batman movie in a Denver suburb on Friday, hurling a gas canister into the auditorium and opening fire on moviegoers who thought it was a promotional stunt.
At least 59 people were injured as the shooter, identified as 24-year-old James Holmes, sprayed bullets from an assault rifle, a shotgun and a Glock handgun. Another Glock was found in his car.
Some of the injured at the sold-out theatre in Colorado were children, with the youngest a four-month-old baby who has been released from treatment.
Several moviegoers said they thought Friday’s attack was part of The Dark Knight Rises, one of the most highly anticipated films of the summer. Then they saw the silhouette of a person in the smoke at the front of the theatre, pointing a gun at the crowd.
“I thought it was showmanship. I didn’t think it was real…. There were bullet (casings) just falling on my head. They were burning my forehead,” Jennifer Seeger said, adding that the gunman, dressed like a SWAT team member, fired steadily except when he stopped to reload.
“Every few seconds it was just boom, boom, boom,” Seeger said. “He would reload and shoot.”
While some witnesses said the gunman entered through a side-door emergency exit at the front of the theatre, a federal official said the suspect bought a ticket and went in as part of the crowd. He is believed to have propped open an exit door as the movie was playing, put on protective ballistic gear and opened fire.
The shooter was arrested shortly after the attack near a car outside the multiplex theatre, Century 16, in Aurora.
Authorities did not release a motive. The FBI said there was no indication the shooting was tied to any terrorist groups.
The carnage immediately brought memories of the massacre at nearby Columbine High School in 1999, where two students opened fire and killed 12 classmates and a teacher. The school is less than 30km from the movie complex.
The Pentagon said some military members were either killed or wounded. Aurora is home to a large defence department satellite intelligence operation.
Holmes was studying neuroscience in a PhD programme at the University of Colorado-Denver graduate school. Holmes was in the process of withdrawing from the course at the time of the shootings.
Holmes, who did not resist arrest, told the police he had explosives at his apartment, which was found to be booby-trapped. Authorities evacuated five buildings as they determined how to disarm the explosives. “It looks very sophisticated, how it’s booby-trapped. It’s something I’ve never seen before,” police chief Dan Oates said.
A man who lives next door said Holmes seemed to be shy. Tom Mai said the mother told him Holmes could not find a job after earning a master’s degree.
The police released a written statement from Holmes’s family: “Our hearts go out to those who were involved in this tragedy and to the families and friends of those involved.”
The Dark Knight Rises, with a budget of $250 million, opened across the world on 4,404 screens today, the second widest release ever behind The Twilight Saga: Eclipse.
“Warner Bros. and the filmmakers are deeply saddened…. We extend our sincere sympathies to the families and loved ones of the victims at this tragic time,” the studio said.
President Barack Obama said he was saddened by the “horrific and tragic shooting”, and he cut short campaigning.
New York City mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who has waged a national campaign for stricter gun laws, said: “You know, soothing words are nice. But maybe it’s time that the two people who want to be President of the United States stand up and tell us what they are going to do about it.”