The six-part series by 9NEWS Reporter Chris Vanderveen and 9NEWS Photojournalist Chris Hansen has been shown every evening the week before the one-year mark of the theater shooting - July 20. On Saturday at 6 p.m., an hour-long special will run showing all the pieces you may have missed throughout the week.
KUSA - I don't know what it takes to be labeled a hero these days, but in this era of pseudo-celebrity, I have long suspected the bar to be quite low. Too low. Heroes, by definition, must do something heroic. Yet, far too often, the label is tossed around like a Frisbee in a park on a warm, Sunday afternoon. What good is a hero when the world is supposedly filled with them?
And then there is the story of what happened in and out of Century 16's theater nine very early on the morning of July 20, 2012. At least 70 people were injured and 12 were killed shortly after a gunman entered Aurora's Century 16 theater a half an hour past midnight on that day. The number of those injured remains unparalleled within the context of American mass shootings.
I freely admit I carried that skepticism with me when I made an initial phone call to the spokesperson of University of Colorado Hospital a few days after the murders inside the theater. At the time, I simply wanted to know more about the men and women who had spent hours working to save lives that horrible night.
I really wish we could better tell this story using their words. I really do. But as long as there is a gag order in place, you will never fully comprehend the lengths to which ordinary men and women went in order to save stranger after stranger.To date, the police officers, firefighters and paramedics who responded to one of the worst mass shootings in this country's history remain prohibited from talking to the press or public about what they saw, heard and felt.
Yet the story still deserves to be told. I became convinced of that shortly after interviewing close to a dozen staff members at University of Colorado Hospital a few weeks after the murders. They told me a story that, I believe, will have implications for each and every mass-casualty incident response from here on out. Of the 23 patients who arrived at University Hospital that night, only three arrived in an ambulance. Here's the thing that really got me. Those three arrived in a single ambulance. Yes, you read that right. On the one of the worst nights in the history of Aurora, only one ambulance responded to University's ambulance bay.
It was completely contrary to what I thought I knew about how this country is supposed to respond to these types of things. And there was more.
Fifteen of the first 17 critically wounded to leave the theater did so inside a police car. You might remember the testimony of an Aurora Police officer during the preliminary hearing for the accused shooter. Back in January, Justin Grizzle testified he could hear blood "sloshing around" in the back of his car.
That's because over the course of 45 minutes and three distinct trips, he helped ferry six critically wounded patients to two hospitals.
Since then, I have tried to better understand why that was the case. We live in a world where there is an expectation that ambulances will be ready to roll shortly after a worst-case scenario invades a school, or a mall or a movie theater.
We live in a world where we believe we can escape from danger in the back of a rolling emergency room.
When the gag order is eventually lifted in the criminal case, ask an Aurora Police officer if he or she still lives in that world. Ask Officer Justin Grizzle, for example, if he still lives there. Ask Officer Chris Neiman. Both made trip after trip to area hospitals with critically-wounded victims in their cars that night. Both waited for ambulances that never got close enough to carry people like Farrah Soudani out of the area.Soudani is convinced she would have died that night were it not for the actions of people who have far too little training in life-saving techniques.
Since those initial discussions with people like Dr. Sasson and Davis, we have spent hours and hours gathering interviews with people far more skilled than us in determining why this country needs to reconsider the way it responds to active-shooter incidents.
We met Denver Health Medical Center's Dr. Peter Pons who remains one of the leading voices in the field of EMS response.
"Fifty ambulances will just not instantaneously appear," he told me.
He'll tell anyone who will listen 70 to 80 percent of all victims of a mass-casualty incident will not arrive at a hospital in the back of an ambulance.
"This is going to happen," he said.
In the last few weeks, photojournalist Chris Hansen and I have traveled to places like San Marcos, Texas; Salt Lake City, Utah; and Springfield, Ore. in an effort to better understand what happened one year ago. We admit the story remains incomplete. The gag order continues to prevent us from interviewing the police officers, firefighters, and paramedics who saw first-hand what the horror of one of the country's worst mass shootings can look like.
All three believe Aurora would have lost more than 12 souls that night had the officers decided to wait for the ambulances to get closer to the theater.
There are a variety of reasons why the response turned out the way it did. We will address them as we address a story that should serve as a lesson to first responders across a country, a country that is growing uncomfortably comfortable with men going into buildings and shooting people at whim.
We also don't believe this to be an indictment on the work done by the Aurora Fire Department or Rural/Metro Ambulances. Both agencies responded in a way that should continue to make the city of Aurora proud. Both were simply caught up in a situation that, for a variety of reasons, prevented much of their equipment from getting next to the theater at a time when people like Soudani were dying out back.
I still don't completely understand why at least four ambulances that responded to the scene were left unused. I don't understand why ambulances were left empty at a time when an officer like Neiman was in the middle of what would turn out to be four trips to area hospitals. Eight people owe their lives to what he did that night. Eight.
In addition, this is not meant to force you to relive the specifics of what happened inside theater nine around the time of the initial 911 call at 12:38 a.m. It would be safe to assume you have heard far more about that than we could ever provide here. It might also be safe to assume you've heard enough of that, and so we will burden you with neither the suspect's face nor name. We've spent far too much time on that already.
In the end, we simply hope you walk away from this project with a better understanding of why, as Becky Davis told us early on, police officers were forced to transport 26 patients to University and Medical Center of Aurora that night.
I can tell you not everyone wants the unusual Aurora police response to become the model for future mass casualty incidents. University Hospital's emergency room, for example, was already technically full when it received its first patient from the theater a little after 1 a.m. Over the course of the next 45 minutes, that full ER would receive 22 more patients. Many of those patients arrived via police car driven by an officer who was unskilled in how to advise a physician, for example, on the extent of the injury of the patient in front of them.
For those who believe in miracles, the fact that University didn't lose a single patient that night should prove the existence of some higher form's handiwork.
We also hope you will come to appreciate the work of people who remain outside of the court of public opinion. Most of them are so humble; they will shudder at the mention of their names in this special. Were there heroes that night? Well, let's just say my cold skepticism has thawed quite a bit.
And we also believe that at some point you just might feel the need to use that word I believe we throw around too casually.
Were there heroes that night? Watch and read and then let it sit there for a bit. After that, feel free to judge for yourself.