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A year later, survivors recall Aurora shooting

Friday - 7/19/2013, 3:32pm  ET

Tom Sullivan speaks during an interview in Aurora, Colo. on Wednesday, July 10, 2013. His son Alex was killed in the July 2012 Aurora theater shooting. Talking about his son and reminding people to appreciate what they have while they have it has given Tom Sullivan some comfort during the past year. He also has testified in favor of gun control laws at the state Capitol and went to the reopening of the Aurora movie theater, an event many other victims’ families boycotted, including Alex’s widow. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

The Associated Press

AURORA, Colo. (AP) -- It is not a small club, the survivors of the shootings at Theater 9.

The Century 16 auditorium was packed -- 421 men, women and children who had turned out for a midnight showing of "The Dark Knight Rises." When a bizarre figure, helmeted and clad in black, appeared before them in a cloud of smoke, they reacted with bemusement and amazement, shock and confusion and -- finally -- horror.

Twelve people died, 70 were injured, and more than 300 fled into the night and into the arms of loved ones.

A year later, the survivors cannot forget their terror, or the injuries they suffered, or their losses. But they search for meaning, and sometimes find it: the victims whose faith has strengthened; the father who lost his son but found a cause; the couple who believe that the anniversary of a hateful act can be transformed by love.

___

Pierce O'Farrill was sitting a few rows up on the right side of the theater when he saw a tear gas canister fly in front of the movie screen, followed by the silhouette of the gunman and a green laser shining from the scope of one of his weapons.

"My heart just kind of stopped," O'Farrill said. "I can still in my head hear the (gunman's) footsteps. Everything went quiet for me."

A blast from a shotgun hit him in the chest and the left foot as he tried to take cover. Moments later, the gunman came closer and shot him with a .40-caliber pistol, shattering his left arm. The shot barely missed a nerve that controls hand function, doctors told him.

O'Farrill, 29, still has shotgun pellets in his chest and a bullet lodged in his arm. It aches when he exercises or when a storm is approaching.

Still, he said, as a devout Christian -- a worker for the Denver Rescue Mission -- he forgives the man charged in the shootings.

O'Farrill said he saw James Holmes for the first time in the hospital, on television news.

"When I saw him, I saw a lost soul," he said. "I saw a guy who was lost and the darkness got him.

"Everybody deserves a chance to be forgiven."

O'Farrill said he hopes Holmes, if convicted, spends the rest of his life in prison -- but that he would even like to meet him one day to see if he is remorseful.

"I would want him to know that there are people in this world that do not hate him," he said. "I want to tell him there is hope in this world, even in the darkest place where he is going to live the rest of his life."

That hope -- and a lot of counseling -- drive O'Farrill forward and make him stronger.

He has begun to play basketball and lift weights again, and now he has bigger goals on his horizon. O'Farrill got engaged July 2 and plans to get married sometime next year. Children, he hopes, will follow.

He feels incredibly lucky to be alive. "The last year's been a blessing," he said.

-- By Thomas Peipert

___

When word of the shootings spread, Tom Sullivan rushed to the staging area at the high school parking lot. His son Alex had gone to see the new Batman movie to celebrate his 27th birthday, two days before his first wedding anniversary.

When he learned that Alex was gone, Tom cried out and embraced his wife and daughter -- a moment captured in a photo that ran on dozens of newspaper front pages and websites.

Weeping in the parking lot, Sullivan realized he had no regrets about his relationship with his son. Each knew how much he was loved by the other. They went on guys-only Super Bowl trips to Las Vegas, celebrating craps wins with Jameson whiskey and cigars. When Alex turned 18 and wanted to get a tattoo, Tom got one too, even though he admitted the experience left him a little pale and sweaty.

"There were no unspoken words," said Sullivan.

He laughs easily when remembering his son. He's drawn comfort over the past year from talking about Alex, and the lesson he had learned: We must appreciate what we have.

He also has testified in favor of gun control laws at the state Capitol and went to the reopening of the Aurora movie theater, an event many other victims' families boycotted, including Alex's widow. His son loved going to the movies and the theater is part of the community -- a place where people come together, where kids can ride to on their bikes.

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