Survivor: ‘It’s all just so crazy’

This story was published on page A1 of The Advocate on July 30, 2012.  

Of all the movie theaters to pass on a road trip from Seattle to Baton Rouge, Bonnie Kate Pourciau and her best friend ended up in the Aurora, Colo., midnight screening of the new Batman movie July 20, the night a gunman opened fire on the audience.

Pourciau, who was shot in the knee, was one of 58 who were wounded. Twelve others died in the massacre.

After flying home to Baton Rouge via air ambulance Thursday, Pourciau said she is preparing for a fourth surgery on her knee at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital.

Just 10 days ago, Pourciau and her best friend, Elizabeth Sumrall, were hiking at Mount Rushmore and Yellowstone National Park. Now, Pourciau said she knows it will be many months before she can walk again.

“It’s all just so crazy,” said Pourciau, 18, as she lay Saturday in her hospital bed surrounded by flowers and cards. “I was passing through for one night and just happened to see a movie that should’ve been sold out in a town that I didn’t even know existed.”

Sumrall, also of Baton Rouge, had mapped out their road trip. She decided they should stay the night in Aurora, instead of nearby Denver because it would be more peaceful.

“I heard the parking was terrible in Denver,” Sumrall said.

The midnight movie premiere hadn’t been in their road trip plans, but while checking into their Aurora hotel the night of July 19, the concierge mentioned there were still tickets available to the midnight showing of the new Batman movie “The Dark Knight Rises.”

“We weren’t exactly huge Batman fans,” Pourciau said. “We were just like, ‘That would be fun. Let’s go.’ ”

Walking into the theater about 15 minutes before the show began, Pourciau and Sumrall giggled at all the Batman enthusiasts in their black-and-yellow costumes and hairdos.

The women were about to sit in the front row, but then saw a pair of open seats farther back in the center about midway through the theater.

The movie started.

Pourciau and Sumrall didn’t notice, but about 15 minutes into it, a man who police later identified as James Holmes, 24, entered the theater through an emergency exit and threw a tear gas canister. He was wearing black riot gear and was armed with an assault rifle, a shotgun and a handgun, police said.

“There was shooting going on in the movie and then a missile thing went ‘woo’ across the room and blew up in the corner, and it was like ‘bam’ like a rocket, and smoke went everywhere,” Pourciau said.

“At first, I wasn’t scared at all because a lot of weird people were out there, like, Batman-obsessive crazy people,” she said. “I thought, ‘Somebody’s just excited about the movie, messing around.’ ”

But then came the booms of gunfire and the screams — “Help!” “He’s got a gun!”

“It was a different kind of screaming than I’d ever heard before,” Pourciau said. “It was pain, complete terror.”

Pourciau pulled Sumrall down to the theater floor. They prayed as they crouched behind some seats, trying to hide from the flying bullets. Smoke filled the room. The women’s throats and eyes began to itch.

People began calling their loved ones to say goodbye.

“ ‘Mom, I love you. There’s a shooting. I don’t know if I’m gonna make it,’ ” Pourciau said she heard.

“Suddenly I felt a gimongous smack in my leg that jolted my entire body,” Pourciau said. “Then I was scared we were gonna get shot again, so I grabbed Elizabeth’s hand and started praying out loud.”

Throughout the shooting, Pourciau said, she never thought about the man who was responsible for it.

“It didn’t hit me that a person was causing all this hurt and trouble,” she said.

When the shooting ceased for a moment, Sumrall pushed Pourciau toward the door. Suddenly, the two were caught in a bloody, stampeding mob running for their lives.

Some had been shot in the face. Some were carrying wounded children. Everyone was screaming.

The women were separated in the crowd. Pourciau’s leg buckled and she fell. She held onto the wall, trying to stand up but kept falling. “Help me, please. Somebody help, please,” she pleaded, as people streamed around her.

Finally, a man later identified as Chris Lakota, 35, an American Indian who had been watching “Spiderman” in the adjoining theater, rushed inside through the emergency exit to Pourciau and grabbed her arms around him to help her hobble out of the theater.

Lakota later told Pourciau’s parents, “I felt like everything I’ve ever been through in my life had prepared me for that moment.”

Outside on the concrete, Lakota gave Pourciau his cellphone to call her parents.

“Hey mom, I’ve been shot and there was a bomb,” Pourciau’s mom, Kathleen Pourciau, recalled hearing through the phone while in her Baton Rouge bed at 1:37 a.m.

After about 20 minutes of waiting outside the theater, a police officer loaded Pourciau and an Indian woman, who had been shot in the neck, into his patrol car.

“I don’t care if they sue me,” he told the two women, as he sped around the area, sirens blaring, swerving, trying to find a way out.

Pourciau’s parents immediately called Henry Barham, 29, a family friend who had gone to LSU Medical School and was in residency at University Hospital in Denver.

Barham arrived at the hospital and spotted Pourciau lying on a stretcher with a dozen other gunshot-wounded patients in an emergency area hallway. She smiled and waved at him.

“After having gone through what she just went through, I found that pretty impressive how positive she was,” he said.

Pourciau’s sunny personality, in the days to come, would attract groups of worn-out hospital staff and patients to her room to be uplifted, Barham said.

“Every single day I’d walk in and there was a different group of nurses or doctors who met her up in her room,” he said.

When President Barack Obama visited the victims last week, he told Pourciau she was an inspiration to him.

Even though Pourciau did multiple television interviews, she only turned on the TV news once. That was the first time she saw the eerie mugshot of the accused gunman, James Holmes.

“When I heard about all the people who had died and all the people who were affected so much, I was really angry,” Pourciau said. “Why would somebody do this?

“But then I saw his face on TV and any little bit of anger and frustration and hatefulness towards him just melted. I just wanted to cry. He looked like a hollow shell of a person. My heart broke for him,” she said.

Now, back with her family in Baton Rouge, Pourciau said she wants to see the end of the movie.

Many of Pourciau’s six younger siblings have been nagging their parents to take them to see “The Dark Knight Rises,” said their father, Trace Pourciau.

“We were thinking it might be nice to go as a family to the theater,” he said, “to see it here in a happy setting.”

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