It was supposed to be an evening of summer fun for Alejandra Cardona and her friends. The freshly minted Gateway High School graduate planned to meet friends for a midnight movie — a premier — last Thursday night.
Everything was perfect, could not have been better. Tickets had been bought early in the day so there would be no need to stand in line, just walk in and take a seat. But, as is sometimes the case for teenagers, Cardona was running behind and when she arrived, she arrived to seats well back from where she might have hoped to see, “The Dark Knight,” the third installment in the Batman trilogy.
“I was sitting maybe four rows from the top,” she says as she recounted the night she will never forget. But, it didn’t matter. “We were just socializing.”
She was socializing with friends who also recently graduated. “We were just saying ‘hi’ to each other.” It was a near perfect summer night.
But conversations ended with the trailers, followed by a calm that settled in as the movie began. In moments, for many in the jam-packed theater, it would be the last calm they would have for awhile.
For a dozen others, it would turn into a much longer and infinite calm.
The only movie scene Cardona recalls from “The Dark Knight” has Christian Bale’s character researching his movie love interest, Anne Hathaway.
What happened next in the darkened theater continues to play out in nightmarish and searing loop for the CSU-Fort Collins rising freshman.
Something was thrown, Cardona says. It would be a smoke or gas device; the first sign that something was wrong; the first sign that things were about to get worse. The person throwing the cannister of smoke or gas, police say, was 24-year-old James Holmes.
People were upset. Their movie was being disrupted. “People thought somebody was throwing a stink bomb,” she says. But seconds later, “you just see flashing lights” — muzzle flashes from one of the weapons Holmes allegedly fired recklessly and purposefully.
The image of a madman walking up the aisle is burned in her memory. “He was tall. He was scary but he was really calm. It was like he had rehearsed everything.”
“I was honestly in shock because at first I just stared at him in the corner,” Cardona says. “I feel like I knew what was going on but I didn’t want to accept it.” That’s when her boyfriend told her to get down. In fact, he pulled her to the ground to escape the line of fire and to disappear in the darkness as the shooter moved closer.
Everyone was hitting the movie theater floor. The screams were frantic, “but they didn’t stop,” remembered the soft-spoken Cardona. “They just kept going and going and going. It was so loud.”
A few friends, along with her younger sister, Sara, escaped the onslaught. Cardona didn’t. A bullet grazed her thigh but for a moment, it didn’t occur that she had been hit.
Her boyfriend, who she prefers not be named, somehow managed to pick her up and carry her out.
“It was the longest distance ever,” she says of the forty or so yards from her seats to a now empty lobby. A new reality struck once they got to the front door. “I could see three people against the wall. They were all bleeding.”
The parking lot where she and her boyfriend were headed toward was also teeming with surreal scenes of people bleeding and trying to escape to a hospital.
Police were already arriving. Her boyfriend put Cardona in his car but police ordered him to wait for an ambulance. A cop she can neither remember — or will never forget — helped get her into an ambulance.
At first, Cardona refused to look at her wound. “I just didn’t want to know. I was scared of seeing how bad it was.” In minutes she was at Aurora’s Childrens Hospital where doctors treated her. The bullet grazed and didn’t penetrate. “I think it may have passed through a chair or something.”
She arrived at the hospital at 1 a.m. She was discharged at 1 p.m. the following day.
Less than a week removed from America’s latest mass killing, Cardona is trying to regain a normalcy, but knows it may not come soon.
Sleep has been a challenge since the shooting. “It starts and stops,” she says. She admits moments are quickly overtaken with bouts of anxiety. She plans to soon see a counselor. But she knows it could have been much, much worse.
A friend — also a Gateway graduate — was killed by the fusillade of gunfire. “I had at least one class with him every year since sixth grade,” Cardona says. “We were good friends.”
Coverage of Cardona’s — and the other victims — ordeal has played out across the world. Local, network and international news crews have provided a steady diet of updates. The president has visited and spoken. Gov. Hickenlooper, Aurora’s mayor and chief of Police have become television staples. The face of Holmes has also become ubiquitous — both in high school and college photos and his persona, with the look of shock, garish orange-dyed hair and clothed in jailhouse-issued clothes.
Immediately following the rampage, conversations on gun control dominated the dialogue. They range from meek and mild, as in ‘current laws wouldn’t have stopped this melee’ to calls for immediate gun-control legislation. For now, nothing has changed. But the conversation will continue as Congress and state legislators convene for their next sessions.
Cardona will see her doctor next week. For the time being, she is staying close to home and moving around on crutches.
Her first real-time glimpse of her alleged shooter occurred on Monday. She says seeing him in his first court appearance left her empty. “I didn’t really want to have any feelings toward him until I saw the footage of the court hearing.” But she does.
“I don’t feel like he’s mentally ill. He’s smart enough,” she says of Holmes, a former honors student, “to act like he’s mentally ill. I think he’ll use that to his advantage.”
Cardona says she won’t allow this incident to derail her plans for enrolling in college at Fort Collins in the fall. Her planned career in business is still her plan.
Also in her plans, finishing the movie that she showed up to see last Thursday night. “I will see it,” she says. “Either at the theater or with friends here at home.”