`I don't want my friends to die on my birthday'

Saturday - 7/21/2012, 5:48pm EDT

By PAULINE ARRILLAGA
AP National Writer

AURORA, Colo. (AP) - 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."

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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 2 1/2 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.