Massachusetts natives Stephen and Katie Laferriere arrived at the movie theater in Aurora, Colo., at 10 p.m. Thursday evening, a couple hours before they were set to see a midnight showing of the new Batman movie.
“It could not have been more normal,” Stephen, 29, said in a phone interview Saturday night.
Parents with giddy young children and affectionate teenage couples filled the lobby of the cinema. Two hours later, many would be victims of one of the worst mass shootings in recent US history when 24-year-old James Holmes burst into a crowded theater and opened fire, killing 12 and wounding 58.
The Laferrieres—she from Peabody, he from Dracut—were supposed to be at the 12:01 a.m. showing in the theater where Holmes unleashed his assault. They are on a cross-country trip to San Francisco, where they are moving so Katie can begin a graduate program.
Katie, 27, found last-minute tickets to the movie at around 9 p.m. Thursday night, but when the couple arrived at the cinema, the event had been oversold. They were moved to a theater across the hall for a 12:10 a.m. start.
About five minutes into the movie, as Catwoman stole Bruce Wayne’s pearls, they heard a pop-pop-pop from an adjacent room.
“We all thought it was sound effects next door,” Stephen said,
The fire alarms went off. A kid in their theater punched the wall, upset that he would miss some of the movie, Stephen said. People groaned as they filed out, telling each other to save their ticket stubs for a refund.
Then they moved into the hallway. Screams filled the air, people ran in all directions, and men and women frantically carried their friends’ bodies outside. Stephen said he did not know what was happening. He and Katie, who met in 2004 at Salem State University, grabbed each other.
“We did see people on the ground, we did see panic,” Stephen said.
Then a police officer ran by saying he didn’t know where the gunman was. After that, Stephen said, “we got out of there as fast as we could.”
They ran to their car and drove back to their hotel. Law enforcement officials swarmed the Denver suburb.
Back at their room, the Laferrieres turned on a local news station. The story was unclear. Stephen called his father back in Massachusetts at 4:30 a.m.
“I actually called my parents just to say, ‘I don’t think this could be anything—we didn’t know yet—but we were in a situation,’ ” he said.
But then the story began to unfold, the bodies and the tallies of the dead and injured. Katie had posted a picture of her ticket stub on Facebook before she and Stephen entered the theater. Friends and family called to make sure they were safe. They barely slept.
The Laferrieres were supposed to stay in Denver for a couple more days, but Stephen said they left and traveled into the Rocky Mountains. Two days later, the couple is still planning to go to San Francisco and can not fully comprehend the tragedy they witnessed.
“Thinking back on it, all those people we saw who were getting dragged out, they were screaming and crying, they had been shot,” Stephen said.
The couple does not plan to return to Aurora, and Stephen said he is not sure when they will return to a theater.
Stephen said he remembers the high-school-aged couple behind him in line flirting, the pregnant mothers-to-be, the parents with their children waiting to see “The Dark Night Rises,” and he wonders how Holmes could have done it.
“If he showed up when I showed up, he saw all that, and for someone to see all that and still pull that off, that’s evil,” Stephen said. “That’s evil at its worst.”