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The first responders who rushed to the movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, three years ago discovered a horrific scene of blood, bullet casings and chaos, police officers and firefighters testified Wednesday during the third day of the trial of admitted gunman James Holmes.
A fire lieutenant who went inside the theater looking for survivors after Holmes opened fire on July 20, 2012, told the jury that he found patients with catastrophic injuries. Some had been shot in the head. Another had been trampled after being shot.
Aurora Fire Lt. Bernd Hoefler said the third person he found showed signs that he might be saved. "He wasn’t obviously dead in there, he was obviously very warm, very limber … I wanted to save him, I wanted to work him," Hoefler said.
He called a partner to help, but they were unable to get him breathing. The had to mark him “black” — a term used in triage that means a patient is unlikely to be saved, and other wounded should have priority. "We had to count him black and move on to the rest," he said.
"I can close my eyes and see the picture of the theater," Hoefler said.
Holmes, 27, has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. He is accused of slaughtering 12 people and injuring 70 others during a midnight screening of the Batman movie "The Dark Knight Rises" inside an auditorium at the Century 16 movie theater.
Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty, and have brought survivors to the stand to share their heart-wrenching ordeals.
First responders described the increasing sense of urgency on police radios as more calls for help came in. A firefighter medic said there were so many police cars and other vehicles around the theater when his engine arrived he was prepared to ram his engine through to reach victims. Many of the wounded ended up being transported by police in cop cars.
"There were people running out of the theater. Some were screaming, some were crying," said Annette Brook, a police officer who has worked for the city of Aurora for 23 years.
As she rushed into the theater, Brook passed people with blood all over their bodies. She could not stop to help anybody because "we did not know where the suspect was," Brook told the court.
The carnage in the theater was extensive. "There was blood on the seats, blood on the wall, blood on the emergency exit door, pools of blood on the floor, Brook said. Rifle casings were strewn on the floor. Emergency personnel were given an order amid the frenzy: "I believe the phrase was, 'If it's got a pulse, get them out of here.'"
Holmes is accused of throwing a tear gas canister inside the packed theater about 10 minutes into the movie, and opening fire on the crowd with a rifle and then a shotgun after that weapon jammed. A witness to the massacre he could see only see the silhouette of the gunman amid the light and smoke, sweeping his weapon over the crowd and firing every about two seconds.
Earlier Wednesday, Aurora Police Sgt. Gerald Jonsgaard testified, and described while holding back tears how he ordered the removal the youngest victim — 6-year-old Veronica Moser-Sullivan — from the theater, even though he knew she was no longer alive.
"I wasn't keeping a child in that crime scene," Jonsgaard said. "You know if there was any possibility she needed to go ... I didn't want my officers stepping over her. I didn't want her at the scene."
If Holmes is found not guilty by reason of insanity, he will be committed indefinitely to a mental hospital. He faces 166 charges of murder and other offenses.