AURORA, Colo. - For the six friends, the movie was to be the kickoff to a day of celebration. Megan Saunders was turning 20, and her best buds were home from college for the summer. She had one particular birthday wish: that they all hit the midnight premiere of the new Batman flick, "The Dark Knight Rises."
Inside theater No. 9 of the Century 16 complex in Aurora, the atmosphere couldn't have been more festive. Little boys had donned their Batman masks while others were clad in full-on Caped Crusader costume. A woman near the front was dressed as Catwoman. When the lights dimmed at 12:05 a.m., a cheer went up as the previews began, followed by an even bigger shout when Bruce Wayne appeared on the big screen.
Megan and her friends sat side-by-side in the fourth row from the front, engrossed in a movie they'd long anticipated, about a superhero facing down evil.
Then an emergency exit door burst open, and suddenly evil was no longer the stuff of comic books and summer blockbusters.
The man stood only feet from them, clad in black, wearing goggles and a gas mask, holding a hissing canister in one hand, a gun in the other. For an instant Megan thought maybe he was a SWAT team member. Next to her, 19-year-olds Emma Goos and Hannah Judson thought it was all just part of the show, some extra theatrics to help set the mood.
It would take only seconds for these childhood friends to realize the horror that was about to unfold.
The man in black lobbed the canister into the crowd. As smoke spewed into the darkness, he fired one shot at the ceiling. Then, he started up the aisle.
Megan and her friends hit the floor as people all around them began screaming. "Get down!" ''There's a gun!" ''Get out!"
In the dark, crouched in front of her seat, her boyfriend trying to shield her, Megan heard the boom of the gun. Again and again and again. She stole one quick look at the audience, and saw people falling over their seats. A thought slowly began to creep into her mind: "I don't want my friends to die on my birthday."
Aurora lies just 10 miles east of downtown Denver, a diverse city of more than 300,000 known for world-class medical centers and its residents' affinity for sports and the outdoors. Like any big city, it has its share of crime but had, as recently as 2011, been ranked by Forbes Magazine as the ninth-safest city in America.
Megan Saunders, Emma Goos and Hannah Judson knew it only as home.
They grew up together, Megan and Emma only three doors apart in a neighborhood just down the street from the shopping mall that houses the Century 16 movie complex. At night, from Emma's front yard, you could see the red, purple and green neon lights of the theater glowing at night.
Movies were their thing. The group would often go to midnight premieres, even after they graduated high school and went their separate ways to college — Megan to study hospitality; Emma, philosophy, math and literature; and Hannah, an aspiring music teacher, the romance language of Italian.
Together again in Aurora for summer break, it was a given that the Batman premiere would be on their must-see list. Megan was a big fan, and the premiere just happened to coincide with her birthday. So the plan was hatched: Catch the midnight show, then grab some sleep and breakfast before continuing the birthday party with a day of ice-block "sledding" in the park.
Around 11:30 p.m., six of them headed to the theater: The three girls along with friends Omar Esparza, Terrell Wallin and Megan's boyfriend of 2½ years, Isaiah Bow. Emma sneaked in the candy bars. Hannah got her usual concession stand favorite, a double scoop of mint chip and fudge ice-cream, and they entered an already packed theater, seeing other friends amid the crowd. With most of the seats up top filled, the group headed toward the front and found six seats together on the righthand side of the theater, four rows from the exit door.
"It was a completely conventional night," Emma would later recall, "up until 15 minutes into the show."
On the screen, the Catwoman character played by actress Anne Hathaway had just been introduced. She had stolen some pearls.
In the theater, alleged gunman James Eagan Holmes had just kicked open the exit door. He was making his way up the aisle, shooting person after person.
Two rows in front of Megan and her friends, 22-year-old Jennifer Seeger, studying to become a firefighter-paramedic, felt bullet cases falling on her head, burning her skin. Behind her people moaned and pleaded, "Please don't shoot me."
In the upper section of the theater, 41-year-old Marcus Weaver, a father of two, heard children crying for their mothers and parents frantically crying, "Where are you at?" All the while the gunshots kept coming. "It was just, 'POW. POW,'" said Weaver. "All you saw was the light (of the gunflash) between the smoke. Then 'POW. POW.'"
From the ground in row 4, Megan and Emma heard a round of 20 to 25 shots. Then, for an instant — maybe 15 seconds — the firing stopped and an eery silence fell over the theater.
They figured the gunman was reloading. This might be their chance.
Emma stood up to run but slipped on butter that had spilled from a popcorn bucket. Still, she knew, "If I paused for one second, he would see me and shoot me." She scrambled back up and, with her head tucked down, made for the theater lobby. When she finally looked back, her friends were nowhere to be found.
Megan's boyfriend, Isaiah, had already jumped over the seats and made his escape through the emergency exit door, figuring Megan and their friends were close behind. But before Megan could get out, she saw the gunman turn to look at Isaiah. She hit the floor once more, as the shooting began all over again.
She knew she had no choice. It was either run and risk being seen, or stay and risk being slaughtered. Screaming at the strangers beside her to "Go! Go!" Megan made for the very same door the suspect had first entered, praying Isaiah would be on the other side waiting for her. Instead, he had disappeared.
They had gone to the movies — all of them, as we all do — for a night of escape. To forget, for just a moment, the troubles of life. Instead, in the chaos that followed, Emma and Megan, and so many others, saw things and did things that they may never forget.
Alone in the parking lot in front of the theater, Emma came across a man begging for help. His face was covered in blood. He kept asking her: "Is there a hole in my head?" She saw tissue protruding from the skin above his eye, but told him as calmly as she could manage: "You're OK. It's OK." She urged him to take off his shirt and apply pressure to the wound. Then she got on her cell phone and called her mother and stepfather.
Megan's boyfriend, Isaiah, had run back into the building in a desperate search for his girlfriend. But he was disoriented and wound up in the wrong screening room. So he shouted to the movie-goers there to get out.
As Megan made her way back to the front of the theater, casualties covered in blood stumbled out of the building. Police were starting to arrive, turning the parking lot into a makeshift triage center. Soon ambulances and gurneys piled with bodies were everywhere. Bloodied T-shirts that became makeshift tourniquets littered the ground.
Somehow, in the midst of it all, Megan found Emma. Then, from a distance, she spotted Isaiah shouting into the crowd. She ran until she could jump into his arms. Her friend Terrell had stayed close behind her. The four of them were together again, and soon they found Emma's parents, who had rushed to the scene.
But where was Omar? Where was Hannah?
Emma couldn't help but think that her friends were likely dead. What were the chances of all of them making it out of there alive? Then her stepfather's cell phone rang.
Hannah and Omar had managed to escape through the lobby and ran, barefoot, all the way back to Emma's house.
"They're OK," her stepfather told the group. All they could do was scream, this time not in terror but relief.
The comparisons came quickly between the massacre in Aurora and one 13 years ago a mere 18 miles away — at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. When her daughter first called, Emma's mother, Judy Goos, immediately thought, "This is another Dylan Klebold. Someone who's angry at the world," said Goos, referring to one of the two students who killed 12 classmates and a teacher and wounded 26 others before killing themselves in what had been the deadliest shooting in Colorado history.
In Friday morning's rampage in Aurora, 12 people died and 58 others were injured. The suspect, 24-year-old Holmes, was arrested outside the theater and is scheduled to appear in court on Monday.
For so many here and across the nation, these types of tragedies have become all too common now, the images of victims covered in blood too horribly familiar. They have been far too frequent these past years, events so horrific they are recalled with only a word or two: Columbine. Virginia Tech. Fort Hood. Tucson. And, now, Aurora.
There will be, as there always are, questions about society's role, about our gun laws, about how it all might have been prevented — and if, or when, it could happen again.
Said Aurora resident Mark Rosenberg, who stood outside of the theater Friday afternoon with his son, Nathan: "It's an unstable world. You never know what's going to happen next." His 13-year-old had gone to the midnight Batman movie at another theater, and said: "It's sad that we can't go into the theaters and feel safe."
Megan and Emma and Hannah and their friends, for now, take a somewhat different view.
They saw the worst of mankind in that theater Friday morning. But they also saw the best of it: People giving strangers CPR. Moviegoers, even some who had been wounded, refusing to flee the theater without helping their neighbors out, too.
They saw horror, but also heroes.
"There are bad apples in every batch," said Hannah. "But for the most part, I've seen nothing but support. People just trying to help people. There were people that were running and then strangers came and picked them up and took them in their car. There was so much unity in our community that I can't think that the bad is so prevalent in our world. I just can't because of one incident. And if it is ... then it's a scary place to live in."
As Emma said later: "You have to see good when you're this lucky. Six people? What are the chances of us being this close (to dying) and being OK?"
When night finally fell, the six friends found themselves at Megan's house, ending the day the way it had begun. Together.
As some peeled off and went home, Hannah and Isaiah stayed behind to do what they'd always intended: commemorate Megan's birthday. They ate muffins instead of cake and she opened one of her gifts: a movie, "Muppet Treasure Island." They sat together, watching cartoons and celebrating, in their own quiet way, life.