Reflecting on the tragedy: scenes I’ll never forget

Six days after the seemingly non-stop coverage of the July 20 theater massacre, these are some of the scenes and accounts that will stay with me long after the world grows tired of this story:

The car that careened into the parking lot of Gateway High School seven hours after the shootings, transporting a frantic man the world would later come to know as Tom Sullivan. His words escaped his mouth faster than the cameramen could snap his picture.

“It was his birthday. It was his birthday,” he shouted.

In his hands was a piece of printer paper that had been folded in quarters and then unfolded. A young man’s smiling face splayed across the page in black and white. He flashed it to reporters, pleading with them to call  if they had any information. In the eyes of a father who refused to think the worst, Alex Sullivan was just a man who had gone to a midnight movie, and then went missing.


The old man who breathed with the help of an oxygen tank and parked his minivan near Gateway High School. He wept at the steering wheel, his head in his hands. “Please tell me something good,” he cried to a man he knew, who walked over to comfort him.


The girl who still had traces of blood on her arm from her unsuccessful efforts to help a man shot in the back. She felt guilty that she hadn’t tried harder to save him, but when the gunman started heading toward her, she panicked, along with the people around her. She dove into the crowd as the bullets struck the bodies next to her,  as the Batman movie played on the screen at the front of the theater.


The barista, the jovial one who makes me chai tea lattes at the Starbucks behind my office, whose face I spotted in the crowd at the prayer vigil that night. We made eye contact, I went over to greet him, we hugged — a tight, unexpected embrace. “I was there,” he said, his expression betraying his sadness. The Spiderman credits were rolling in theater 15 when he and hundreds of other unsuspecting theater-goers were evacuated from the building. He and a friend heard someone say something about shots being fired. They started to run.

The barista’s friend, who saw a girl collapse outside the theater. Instead of fleeing to safety, he ran toward her. “My right side, my right side, I can’t breathe, my lungs are filling up with blood,” she the barista’s friend. He asked her if she could walk. She said yes. He helped her up. She couldn’t walk. He carried her to a nearby parking lot. Her arm was broken, she was making horrible sounds and spitting blood. He looked around, scanning the wreckage of a massacre, searching for someone who could help her. He caught sight of a policeman carrying a little girl, limp and lifeless in his arms.


The balloons, pink and purple, that floated into the summer sky during Sunday evening’s vigil, high above 10,000 people who stood with one another to mourn.


Orange cones and crime scene tape surround the Century 16 movie theater across from the newspaper office. A few hundred feet away from the theater at the edge of an empty field is the memorial I visited today, five days after the shooting. Without a notebook or a recorder, I stood among the mourners as one of them. Complete strangers wrote heartfelt notes to the victims on huge pieces of cardboard. Twelve crosses are staked in the ground, surrounded by countless flowers, stuffed animals, balloons and candles. A skateboard, a book, a baseball cap, a portrait of a father, all of them are objects that mean something to someone, somewhere. Engraved onto a slab of wood are the words: “This is not what our soldiers die for.” With my back to the Century 16 marquee visible in the distance, I snapped a picture. It’s a souvenir of an inhumane act, and proof that humanity prevails.

  • Mollymarkert

    you re all too young and too innocent to have to endure this carnage, but fortunately for us old folks, you will learn, remember and do something to bring us to a place of peace

  • Sean Mcewen Du

    Great and touching story Sara, thanks!

  • Stacey

    No one who goes through something like this is ever the same. Remembering these moments will make your heart stop, even 13 years later. But remembering will also reopen the reasons to love, honor those who we miss, and fight for the good in the world. Keep remembering. Keep fighting. 

  • Beautifully shared, Sara. 

    The hardest moment for me witnessing a police officer fight back emotion as he was looking at the Cinema.  I hope he thinks of the lives he saved that morning, of the positive difference that he makes in the community now, of how valued and appreciated he is. 

    There were no words that I could say to him except….thank you.  

    This will stick with all of us for a long time. 

  • It’s too soon when you have to see gruesome, demonic and sad things like this. I just want you to know that I say a prayer for you everyday since July 20th. You may not be physically wounded, but I understand that images like this can do harm, too.

  • Na

    Many thoughts and prayers are with those who lost someone and a special thanks to those who put forth your heroic effort to help to save someone