A fun night out at the latest Batman movie turned into horror on Friday as film-goers dove under seats to escape a masked gunman after initially thinking his attack was part of the spectacle.
AURORA- In a packed multiplex in the Denver suburb of Aurora, hundreds of fans had turned out for midnight screenings of "The Dark Knight Rises," the finale of the Batman series -- when all hell broke loose.
"I think a lot of people thought it's part of the movie. And the you realize it's not," Erin Post, 15 -- attending her first midnight preview -- told AFP, describing the moment the first smoke bomb went off.
Seventeen-year-old Tanner Coon and his friends were sitting four rows from the top of theatre 9, the one where the masked gunman suddenly emerged from an exit door near the front and began shooting.
"I was trying to get out and I landed on a lady who was covered in blood. I said to her 'We've got to go. We've got to get out of here.' There was no response and I presumed she was dead," Coon told AFP at the scene.
Police arrested the killer -- identified by US media as 24-year-old local man James Holmes -- at the rear of the theater shortly after the massacre, which left at least 12 people dead and nearly 40 injured.
Chris Ramos explained how, like many people, he at first assumed the noise was part of the movie.
"It was 15 to 20 minutes into the movie. I have been hearing stuff and people saying that there was an action scene going on when the shooting happened," he told CNN.
"At first we thought it was part of the show, because we thought that people were trying to hype people up as to the new Batman movie and throwing stuff," he added.
He explained: "In the shadow it looked like it could have been a toy bat or whatever, and right from there when it happened, there was an explosion and there was smoke coming out and a weird smell coming up."
Away from the massacre scene, police quizzed uninjured movie-goers at a nearby high school -- where the scene rapidly turned grim as the early morning cool gave way to a crystal clear Colorado sky, and rapidly rising temperatures.
Parents and family members started arriving looking for their loved ones.
Paul Smith had dropped his 14-year-old sister, Dana, and had no word of her since a quick call at 12.37 am.
Rodney Haines was searching for information on his 29-year-old son, Rodney Haines Jr.
"His name's not on any lists," the elder Haines told AFP, adding: "I've called some hospitals. Now I've got to go home and get my wife."
Beside a green minivan, a middle-aged man sobbed uncontrollably, as a local pastor and police volunteers tried to comfort him.
The focus also switched to the gunman's apartment, a few miles away. Police and bomb squad officers used a mobile ladder to begin inspecting it via an outside window, and rapidly announced that it was booby-trapped.
A pharmacy student called Ben who lives in the same building --- which was evacuated in the early hours -- told the Denver Post that Holmes kept to himself and did not acknowledge people when they passed in the hall.
"No one knew him. No one," he said.