Trauma Confronted

Aurora Survivors Tell of Their Brave Return to ‘The Dark Knight Rises’

Ex-Marines Jacqueline Keavney Lader and Don Lader write about going back to see ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ after the massacre in Aurora chased them from the theater.

Ted S. Warren / AP Photo

My husband, Don, and I both love movies. We’re self-professed movie buffs, and have been since childhood. Attending midnight-movie releases are a treat, and the Century 16 multiplex in Aurora, Colo., is a short drive away. In the late night hours of July 19th, we arrived at the theater about an hour before our 12:05 a.m. showing. We settled into our usual seats (the eighth row up) to wait for the movie to start. Excited people streamed into the theater, some of them in costume. All of us were excited, my husband and I especially, because we’re big fans of Christopher Nolan’s work. By 11:30 p.m., the house was absolutely packed. Someone stood up and shouted “30 MINUTES!!!” and the crowd clapped and cheered.

When the movie finally started, the place was completely silent. We were expecting some excellent action scenes, and the movie starts out with a completely over-the-top aerial stunt. About 20 minutes into the movie, my husband and I both noticed a bright sliver of light in the corner of the theater. We watched as a man, dressed in head-to-toe body armor, smoothly walked in through the emergency exit, popped a smoke grenade, and tossed it directly over our heads into the crowd.

Something you should know about us: we both served on active duty with the United States Marines. Marines train with tear gas, and we train with it yearly. Neither of us will ever forget the sound of a tear gas canister popping and hissing—it’s as distinctive as someone opening a can of soda, and it’s loud. The smell of tear gas is as unique as the sound of its canister being deployed. If I lived 100 years I would never forget that smell. It’s quite literally burned into my brain.

I know that Don and I knew something was very wrong the instant that emergency exit opened. For maybe one second I thought we were victims of a simple prank, and I thought “This is not funny.” But my bad gut feeling was confirmed the instant I smelled tear gas, and we hit the floor as the burning sensation of the gas filled our eyes, noses and lungs. As we were on our way down to the ground, the shooter opened fire. Now, this is where Don gets humble: he threw himself over me to shield me from the gunfire. That’s the moment where I knew without a doubt that my husband would get us out of there safely. We heard a break in the shooting (where Don thought the shooter was reloading; we found out later that his semi-automatic rifle had jammed) and Don dragged me off the floor. He screamed out “RUN!” as a command to a friend who had come with us that night, and we sprinted for the exits. We got knocked down and trampled a bit on our way out, but we regained our footing and ran as hard and as fast as we could.

We didn’t stop running until we got to our car, and we peeled out of the parking lot. We stopped just at the entrance of the theater, because we saw a family who seemed to be headed back toward the entrance. I rolled down the windows and shouted “No, don’t go in there, some guy has a gun!” One of the women (the family was two ladies and their young teenage son) frantically told us that she’d left her keys in the theater, and that she had to go back. Don leaned over me in the passenger seat and told her, “Get in the car, now.” With six people safely crammed in our vehicle, Don slammed on the gas pedal. As we were turning onto the main road, about six cop cars with their lights flashing were speeding toward the theater.

Don drove and didn’t stop until we got home. At this point none of us had any idea exactly what happened, or how bad the shooting really was. I had the bright idea to call the Aurora police nonemergency number, and they asked us very politely to return to the police cordon and give our statements to an officer. To say that all six of us were in a state of shock would be the understatement of the year. After we spoke to the police, we dropped off the family we had picked up earlier at the local blood donation center. It turns out that one of the ladies works there, and she got called in to release a disaster package of blood to the local hospitals. The disaster was the shooting, and we were horrified at the initial count of dead and wounded.

Because of our prior military experience, we’ve gone through all the problems that come along with being shot at before. We’ve both been deployed to Iraq. And we learned the hard way that ignoring mental trauma or getting inadequate treatment for mental trauma can be just as traumatic as a physical wound. Later in the morning, about six hours after the shooting, Don and I knew we had to go talk to someone as soon as possible. Our therapist encouraged us to go see the movie again, in order to disassociate.

On Saturday, July 21st, the day after the shooting, Don and I returned to another Aurora-area theater to finish watching The Dark Knight Rises. While we experienced some very difficult, tense moments during the showing, we made it through together. In order to move forward, we needed to experience watching the movie again. Adding to our sense of safety was a very visible and active uniformed police presence at the theater; every time an officer stepped in to check on the house, we both breathed a sigh of relief.

We also went back to the theater a third time, exactly a week after the shooting, to watch the movie with the family we’d picked up outside the Century 16 Theater. Don had made a promise to their teenage son, that if he wanted to go back and finish the movie, he’d be right there beside him.

Don and I had decided that it was vitally important to go back as soon as possible to the movie theater and finish watching The Dark Knight Rises. The shooter’s intent was to cause fear, injury, and death. We escaped injury and death. Whether it was due to luck, fate, our military training, or all three, we’ll never know. But we both refuse to let fear consume us. We refuse to allow this one madman to injure our minds and spirits the way he tried to injure our bodies. If we let fear overtake us and prevent us from living bold, authentic lives, the shooter—and other murderers like him—wins.