AURORA, Colo.—Brandon DiRito, 16, was having a great day. He played his last baseball game of the season with his teammates, went bowling with his big sister and friends, hung out with his girlfriend and then found out that he had scored tickets to the midnight premiere of "The Dark Knight Rises," even though he and his friends had waited until Thursday afternoon to buy them for the showing later that night.
Brandon, his sister Taryn DiRito and his girlfriend, Samantha Ginsburg, were accompanied by three friends—Juliana Curtis, Jessica Almand and Cole Pentland; they picked the Century 16 movie theater in Aurora because of how cheap the tickets were (only $6.50). Brandon donned a T-shirt featuring the late actor Heath Ledger as the Joker, his face decorated with the scary painted-on smile he wears in the Batman movies.
When Brandon got to the theater, he saw that many people were far more dressed up than he was--in full Catwoman or Batman costumes. It was a rowdy crew, and people yelled and cheered as the trailers began to play, growing especially noisy for the Superman teaser. Juliana, 20, updated her Facebook status: "It's going to be a good night."
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The only thing threatening to mar the group's fun was that most of the seats were already taken when the six of them arrived, so they were stuck sitting in the bottom level, only eight rows away from the screen, forcing them into uncomfortable neck-craning positions. These bad seats may have ended up saving their lives.
By now, everyone is familiar with the horrifying events that unfolded next, but when it was happening to Taryn and Brandon, it seemed unreal and impossible. They are still struggling to come to terms with what occurred, and the fact that 12 people were killed and 58 others injured over the next few minutes.
A masked gunman wearing head-to-toe SWAT gear, a helmet and gas mask entered through the exit door on the right side of the screen while they were engrossed in the movie. Both Taryn and Brandon, who were sitting on the left side of the theater near the aisle, immediately noticed the exit door opening. Taryn remembers feeling "concerned," and then the gunman lobbed tear gas canisters over their heads and fired a shot into the air. Brandon grabbed his girlfriend's hand and ran out of the theater's left exit after the gunman had gotten off only two or three shots. The instinct to run was so powerful that Brandon never even ducked under his seat before fleeing. He remembers sprinting into the lobby and seeing the Snack Shack and surrounding area completely deserted. He turned around to see a horde of moviegoers running out behind him.
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Meanwhile, Taryn and Juliana Curtis were hunched behind the seat backs, listening in fear to the screams of other people in the theater, while Cole pushed Jessica down, too. Their location saved them from the worst of the attack.
"We were lucky enough that he didn't shoot at the front of the theater. He kept shooting up ... he never shot down at us," Taryn said.
When Taryn and her friends finally made a run for it, several minutes after her brother, Taryn was accidentally shoved up against the wall of the lobby by someone else who was fleeing. Taryn, 18, is only 4 foot 10 and 100 pounds. Juliana remembers seeing Taryn hitting the wall, an elbow flying into her face, and then the two were separated in the chaos.
They found each other again in the lobby, and then Taryn stopped abruptly as soon as they got out of the lobby's doors in front of the theater. "Where's my brother?" she asked in a panic. Brandon, who had made it to the parking lot with his girlfriend, was struck by the same thought as the initial terror subsided. He ran back to the theater's entrance, screaming Taryn's name. A few minutes later he spotted Juliana's bright yellow Batman shirt, and he and Taryn were reunited. Taryn was hyperventilating. They ran to Juliana's car and drove home almost in silence, all of them shaking in fear.
Both Brandon and Taryn talked to counselors the next day, and Taryn was prescribed some anxiety medicine to help her get through the next few days. But the memories from the night are hard to shake, even though both feel grateful they made it out alive.
"I saw people falling and I heard people screaming and I heard people running; people got out there and they were covered in blood," Taryn remembers. Brandon is haunted by an image he glimpsed right before he ran out the exit, of a woman lying face-down on the stairs of the upper level of the theater, legs pointing upwards.
"It's hard to know that a 6-year-old passed away and I got out with nothing but a bruise," Taryn said.
"I'm still feeling scared, like stuff that I see everywhere reminds me of his figure or the theater and like exit signs," Brandon said. He's also been disturbed by images of the suspected shooter, James Holmes, that constantly play on the TV news. "I saw his face and ... it just made me really mad that he was smiling," Brandon said.
At a packed prayer vigil for the victims of the attack on Sunday night, both Taryn and Brandon said they felt very supported by the community and were touched that people who didn't personally know the victims had shown up to pray for them. Brandon's girlfriend, Samantha, said she was grateful to Brandon for grabbing her hand and getting her out of the theater so quickly. "It was really amazing just to have someone to trust like that to get you out of that situation," she said.
Brandon, who is going to be a high school junior next year and eventually wants to be a pediatric nurse, said he's learned to cherish his friends and family. Taryn, who is attending Colby Community College in Kansas next year on a softball scholarship, is trying to focus on gratitude, while hoping to live her life as normally as possible.
"I honestly don't want to take anything for granted anymore," Taryn said. "I don't want to be sad about the little things like not having a car. It makes me realize how important things are and how great it is to be alive."