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2012-07-23

Aurora Shooting Witness Omar Esparza Describes Watching Massacre Unfold & Narrowly Escaping Theater

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Thousands of people gathered in Aurora, Colorado, on Sunday at a public vigil for the victims of the shooting rampage at a local movie theater. The toll stands at 12 people killed and 58 wounded, nine of them critically. We’re joined by an eyewitness to the shooting, Omar Esparza, who narrowly escaped after the gunman opened fire. "When he came in and started shooting at the audience, we hit the floor and tried to crawl across to the other side," Esparza recalls. "[When] it sounded like the bullets had stopped, and it sounded like he was either switching guns or recharging his rifle ... we realized that that was our only opportunity of getting out or of dying. So, at that split second, we had to react and had to exit as quickly as possible. And we barely made it." [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Survivors of the Aurora, Colorado, massacre joined thousands of supporters for a vigil honoring those killed when a gunman fired into a crowded theater during a midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises last Friday. Makeshift memorials have cropped up across Aurora as residents grieve for the 12 killed and 58 injured in the shooting rampage. Of those injured, 25 remain in area hospitals with nine in critical condition.

On Sunday, President Obama spoke at the University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I had a chance to visit with each family, and most of the conversation was filled with memory. It was an opportunity for families to describe how wonderful their brother or their son or daughter was and the lives that they had touched and the dreams that they held for the future. I confessed to them that words are always inadequate in these kinds of situations but that my main task was to serve as a representative of the entire country and let them know that we are thinking about them at this moment and will continue to think about them each and every day, and that the—that the awareness that not only all of America but much of the world is thinking about them might serve as some comfort. I also tried to assure them that, although the perpetrator of this evil act has received a lot of attention over the last couple of days, that attention will fade away, and in the end, after he has felt the full force of our justice system, what will be remembered are the good people who were impacted by this tragedy.

AMY GOODMAN: The president, along with his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, suspended campaigning for the weekend. Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan said his community had taken a blow, but they will get back on their feet.

MAYOR STEVE HOGAN: We will all come together. We’ll survive this. But there’s no way around it. It’s tough. You can’t have that many people die and that many more people be injured in an absolutely senseless situation and not see it as anything but tough.

AMY GOODMAN: As the families of victims struggle with their loss, new details have emerged about the shooting suspect, 24-year-old James Holmes, reportedly a promising neuroscience graduate student at the University of Colorado-Denver, recipient of a competitive grant from the National Institutes of Health. According to a statement from the school, Holmes enrolled in June 2011 and was in the process of withdrawing.

The motive for his deadly shooting spree remains unknown. Police believe Holmes meticulously planned his rampage, spending some $15,000 on weapons and ammunition. When police disabled his booby-trapped apartment, they found 30 improvised hand grenades, several containers filled with gunpowder and gasoline. Authorities also recovered a computer, a Batman poster and mask and other paraphernalia related to Batman. Investigators have discovered Holmes began buying weapons in May at stores in the Aurora region. Among the weapons seized from his apartment were two .40 caliber pistols, a Glock G22 and a Glock G23; a Smith & Wesson M&P .223 caliber semiautomatic rifle; and a Remington 870 Express Tactical 12-gauge shotgun. He also bought 6,000 rounds of ammunition online, as well as a high-capacity drum magazine, large enough to hold a hundred rounds and capable of firing 50 or 60 rounds per minute.

Holmes is currently being held in solitary confinement at an Aurora jail, awaiting his arraignment this morning. He possibly faces the death penalty.

For more, we’re joined by an eyewitness to the shooting, Omar Esparza. He just left Aurora, Colorado, last evening. He’s joining us now from his home city of Houston, Texas.

Omar, welcome to Democracy Now! Where were you sitting in the theater?

OMAR ESPARZA: I was sitting approximately at the third row—I was sitting in the third row approximately seven seats down around near the middle.

AMY GOODMAN: So it was in theater nine. Can you tell us what happened?

OMAR ESPARZA: Sure. It was approximately 15 minutes into the movie when we heard the door being kicked open. Apparently, it had been propped open. But it was kicked open, and somebody walked in and threw a smoke grenade into the crowd. We thought that it was a practical joke. And I personally thought that it was a stink bomb or, you know, something somewhat juvenile. But when the canister exploded, we—everybody sort of started screaming, and that’s when the gunman opened fire on the crowd, and pandemonium just broke out immediately afterwards.

AMY GOODMAN: How close were you to him?

OMAR ESPARZA: I was approximately 10 feet from him. I was sitting on—

AMY GOODMAN: What was he wearing? Could you see him?

OMAR ESPARZA: Yes, I could see him very clearly. He was wearing, I believe, camouflage pants. He had a lot of body armor on. He had a riot helmet. He had a gas mask on and some goggles and, of course, all of his weapons. He was heavily armed and heavily protected.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, when did you realize he wasn’t just like in a Batman costume like a lot of the people who were there for the premiere of the film? When did people start going down on the ground or try to escape?

OMAR ESPARZA: Well, it was a few seconds after the canister exploded. He shot a few—a few bullets into the ceiling, and a few people started screaming. But when he started opening fire on the audience pretty freely, just started shooting in every direction, that’s when everybody started screaming, started panicking. A lot of people had been hit at that point at that initial—those initial few rounds, and that’s when everybody sort of hit the floor and started to exit.

AMY GOODMAN: You were with a group of friends. How did you get out? How many of you were there?

OMAR ESPARZA: There were six of us. We were actually there for a birthday celebration. And when he came in and started shooting at the audience, we hit the floor and tried to crawl across to the other side. Unfortunately, there were some people who were petrified or injured who were blocking the passage to the other exit. But when—at least from my vantage point at that moment, it sounded like the bullets had stopped, and it sounded like he was either switching guns or recharging his rifle, but—reloading his rifle. But at that very second when we sort of heard the silence, we realized that that was our only opportunity of getting out or of dying. So, at that split second, we had to react and had to exit as quickly as possible. And we barely made it, too, because approximately a second after we had exited, we heard him starting to shoot again.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, people raced out. Police were there very quickly. Did you see them outside?

OMAR ESPARZA: No, I did not see them outside immediately. It was about five minutes after we had exited the building that we started hearing sirens. At first, it was approximately maybe like two, three sirens. But there was a police station very nearby, so maybe within about five minutes, six minutes, you could hear about 10, 15 sirens and helicopters.

AMY GOODMAN: You regrouped with your friends outside. You saw people being taken out, bloody people crawling out. Your final thoughts, Omar? As you return home to Houston, how are you coping with this?

OMAR ESPARZA: I don’t think that there really is much coping except trying to parse out what exactly happened, what are the many factors that played into this shooting, not just gun control laws but also corruption in the pharmaceutical industry, the neurological factors that went behind James Holmes’ thinking—just all the multiplicity of things that went into this sort of event. Trying to figure out and trying to research and trying to sort of make sense, as much as possible, of everything that happened of this incident is probably the best way that I’ve been coping with the situation so far.

AMY GOODMAN: Omar, I want to thank you for sharing this with us, sending your message to our Facebook page describing your experience. Omar Esparza, eyewitness to the Aurora, Colorado, shooting massacre, crawled out with his friends, escaped minutes after the shooter opened fire on theater nine in Aurora, Colorado.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, another survivor of sorts. She lost her husband, her son was critically wounded, in the Long Island Rail Road massacre of 1993. She then ran for Congress on a gun control ticket, and she won. She beat the congressmember who was not for gun control. We’re going to be speaking with Long Island Congressmember Carolyn McCarthy. Stay with us.

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