AURORA, Colo. -- A gunman burst into the emergency exit door of a theater and shot 71 people, killing 12, at a midnight premiere of the new Batman movie Friday, creating a chaotic, smoke-filled scene that had bloody moviegoers dragging each other outside.
While some witnesses said the gunman entered through a side-door emergency exit at the front of the theater, a federal law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Associated Press that the gunman bought a ticket and went into the theater as part of the crowd.
The official said James Holmes, 24, then apparently propped open an exit door in the theater as the movie was playing, donned the protective ballistic gear and began one of the worst mass shootings in the nation's history.
"It was like something out of a movie," said Jacob King, who was standing in the lobby when someone carried out the still body of a young girl, covered in blood. "You don't want to believe it's real, but it is."
The moviegoer handed the child's body to a police officer, who put her in the back of his squad car and sped away.
Holmes stormed into the theater with three guns -- an AR-15 assault rifle, a shotgun and a Glock handgun -- and two gas canisters that clouded the room and stung people's eyes and throats. Witnesses said he was wearing a gas mask and a flak jacket.
In New York City, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said: "It clearly looks like a deranged individual. He has his hair painted red. He said he was the Joker, obviously the enemy of Batman." Aurora Police Chief Dan Oates would not confirm that information, but confirmed he had spoken to Kelly. The two used to work together in New York.
Holmes was arrested by police in the parking lot outside the theater and is custody. His car, a Hyundai, was parked outside the back door, Oates said at a press conference. Police found his north Aurora apartment booby-trapped, the same song playing on repeat on his stereo. The apartment complex has been evacuated.
In the wake of the shooting, the Paris premiere of "Dark Knight Rising," one of the most anticipated movies of the year, was cancelled.
The massacre occurred in a suburb of Denver, about 18 miles from Littleton, scene of the 1999 Columbine mass shooting where 15 people died, including the two gunmen.
Holmes, who went to high school in the San Diego area, had a degree in neuroscience from the University of California-Riverside, and he enrolled as a graduate student in the same field at the University of Colorado, according to spokeswomen for both universities. He withdrew from the university last month for unknown reasons.
Oates said the first police officers were at the theater within between 60 and 90 seconds. Eventually 200 officers and deputies responded.
Ten people died in the theater and two others died at hospitals. Many of the injured were critically injured. At least one person in an adjoining theater was hit.
One of those killed was Jessica Ghawi, a sports blogger also known as Jessica Redfield. She recently wrote of surviving a Toronto shooting. The Department of Defense says two Air Force airmen and a Navy sailor were wounded in the shooting, while another sailor who was at the theater can't be located.
One of the victims died at Children's Hospital in Aurora but officials there would not say whether it was a child or an adult. The other five patients survived, including one who is in critical condition with buckshot injuries to the back.
Two of the victims at Children's were hit with a high-velocity rifle, perhaps from 60 to 80 feet away, said emergency room physician Dr. Guy Upshaw.
Oates said police received hundreds of 911 calls about the shooting beginning at 12:39 a.m. and arrived minutes later at the theater complex.
Police say the suspect "appeared" at the front of one of the theaters showing "The Dark Knight Rises." Witnesses told The Post he entered through an emergency exit at the right front of the Theater 9 less than 10 minutes into the film.
The suspect then threw some type of explosive and started shooting into the packed theater. Police have no evidence that there are any additional suspects involved in the shooting.
The bodies of the 10 people who died at the theater remain at the scene while police continue to investigate.
Josh Kelly, 28, was watching the movie with his girlfriend of about four years. He lost her in the chaos.
Josh called his father, Robert Kelly, from the theater and said: "I can't find my girl." In the mayhem, the darkness and the smoke, and people trampling, he "just lost track and he couldn't see," the elder Kelly said. "My son is freaked out."
Robert Kelly rushed to the theater after his son's call, and found him outside covered in blood. His girlfriend was among the fatalities. Now he is home and sedated, under a nurse's care.
Outside the back exit of the theater, FBI agents have placed yellow tape and numbered evidence markets on objects in the parking lot, including a gas mask. A bloody jacket and spilled popcorn were on the pavement.
Authorities also searched a white car parked behind the movie theater, removing what appeared to be a combat helmet, a duffle bag, an ammunition clip and a vest.
After his arrest, the suspect made a statement about possible explosives in his residence.
Police have blocked off a three-block area around an apartment complex in north Aurora. Residents in the area said they were evacuated around 2 a.m. while police searched the third floor of the apartment building.
The University of Colorado confirmed that Holmes was in the process of withdrawing from the university's graduate program in neurosciences. Holmes enrolled at the university in June 2011.
Police from all over the metro area were called to the scene.
Corbin Dates and Jennifer Seeger were sitting in the second row of the theater when Dates saw someone in the front row answer a phone call during the opening credits and walk to the emergency door in the front of the theater.
Less than an hour later a man, dressed in black and wearing a gas mask and what looked like body armor, entered through the same emergency exit. He lobbed two canisters and almost instantly the theater filled with smoke.
Dates and Seeger, like others in the theater, thought the man and the smoke were all part of the show, they said. Right as their eyes began to tear up from the smoke, the man fired a shot at the ceiling.
The gunman moved through the crowd and stopped in front of Seeger.
He pointed a long rifle at her face and said nothing.
He shot at the person sitting behind her, Seeger said.
"I have no idea why he didn't shoot me," Seeger said.
The two dove to the ground. They could feel hot shell casings hitting their legs as the tried to crawl through the dark theater now filled with smoke. Seeger's forehead has a burned from one of the casings.
Her friends urged each other and the people around them to stay quiet, desperate not to draw the attention of the gunman who was working his way up the aisle.
As she huddled on the ground, Seeger could see bodies of women and children lying around her.
Seeger, who has some EMT training, tried to help a man bleeding next to her. She worked to find a pulse, but was forced to leave him behind as they tried to flee the theater.
People tried to exit through the main entrance of the theater, Seeger said. By then the gunman had worked his way to the back of the theater, shooting at people as they tried to run.
Seeger estimates she was trapped in the theater for 10 to 15 minutes. When she finally reached the lobby, she saw a police officer cocking a shot gun.
Once outside, Seeger called her father.
"My dad is not a sentimental guy, but he was crying on the phone," Seeger said.
James Wilburn was also sitting in the second row of the theater when the emergency door opened.
"He was dressed in black," Wilburn said. "Wearing a flack jacket and a gas mask."
The man dropped a canister to the floor that began spewing gas before he fired several rounds toward the back of the theater.
Naya Thompson, 21, said the gas spread quickly through the theater and thinks that the gunman may have dropped two canisters.
"It was like tear gas," Thompson said. "I was coughing and choking and I couldn't breathe."
Benjamin Fernandez, 30, said he was watching the movie when he heard a series of explosions. He said that people ran from the theater and there were gunshots as police shouted "get down!"
Frenandez said he saw people falling, including one young girl.
Brittany Romero was in Theater 10 for the 12:15 a.m. showing. When the fire alarm sounded, people began throwing their popcorn and drinks in the air, assuming it was a practical joke, Romero said.
Salina Jordan, 19, was in Theater 8 and saw people fall after they were shot. She said one girl was struck in cheek, others were wounded in the stomach including a girl who looked to be around 9-years-old.
Jordan said it sounded like firecrackers until someone ran into Theater 8 yelling "they're shooting out here!"
The police came running in, telling people to run out. Some police were carrying or dragging bodies, she said.
Meghan Walton, 20, of Boulder said she was sitting beside her friend Gage Hankins, 18 of Ohio, in Theater 8 when he was shot in the arm before he was rushed out of the theater.
"I saw a whole lot of smoke in the isle," Walton said. "I saw about three of four bullets shot near the smoke."
Walton was with 10 members of the group Friends: Association of Young People who Stutter.
"I ran outside and was holding his arm that was hot," Walton said. "My eyes were blurred by the smoke. It was like chaos. People were crying hysterically."
She counted 12 people who were bleeding. Ambulances started arriving but there were not enough to put everyone in them.
"The worst was a man who was shot in the head. He had his hand on his head," Walton said. "They started doubling up, putting two people in the same ambulance. One girl who wasn't injured as badly was placed in a police car and rushed away."
Police set up a command post near the Dillards department store and were interviewing hundreds of possible witnesses. Many were taken by bus to Gateway High School for questioning.
Robert Jones, 28, was in Theater 9 when the shooting started.
Jones said when he first saw smoke billowing from the front of the theater, he thought it was a special effect. Shots rang out almost immediately after.
"I thought it was pretty much the end of the world," Roberts said.
Roberts stayed flat on the ground until police came into the theater.
Tammi Stevens said her son, 18-year-old Jacob Stevens, was inside Theater 9 when the shooting started. Stevens was waiting for her son at Gateway High School while police interviewed him.
Jacob told his mom that he saw a guy walk into the theater wearing body armor and throw some sort of cannister that then emitted some sort of gas.
"You let your kids go to a late night movie...you never think something like this would happen," Stevens said.
President Obama addressed the shooting from Ft. Myers, Fla., Friday morning.
"We never understand what leads someone to terrorize their fellow human beings like this," Obama said. "Life is very fragile and it' is precious."
Gov. John Hickenlooper released a statement Friday morning.
"It is beyond the power of words to fully express our sorrow this morning," Hickenlooper said. "We appreciate the swift work by local, state and federal law enforcement. Coloradans have a remarkable ability to support one another in times of crisis. This is one of those times."
In a statement released Friday morning, Republican Mitt Romney said that he was "deeply saddened" by the "senseless violence."
The FBI is assisting in the investigation. Officers and deputies responded from almost every local police and sheriff's department in the metro area.
The FBI said that there is no indication that the shooting has any connection to terrorism.
Victims were transported to at least six hospitals. Several of them were rushed to hospitals in police cars. Ages of people injured and killed in the shooting vary.
One child and five adults were taken to Children's Hospital Colorado. The adults ranged in age from 18 to 31 years old. One of the six patients died and the other five are currently listed in conditions from good to critical.
Information on which of the patients died was not released.
Shortly after midnight, patients started arriving at the Medical Center of Aurora. A total of 15 patients -- ranging from 16 to 31 years old -- were sent to the medical center, 12 of them with gunshot wounds.
Eight of the patients have been discharged, five victims remain in critical condition and two patients are being prepared for surgery.
All of the patients came in with wounds to their torsos, necks or necks. Doctors said the wounds were caused by a high caliber weapon and or what appears to be shrapnel.
Swedish Medical Center spokeswoman Nicole Williams says two people injured at the theater have arrived at the hospital in critical condition.
She says emergency workers said there could be several more patients.
Denver Health Medical Center treated six victims from the shooting. All were treated for gunshot wounds and abrasions. Three victims have since been released, the other three remain in fair condition, hospital officials said.
A total of 23 victims were taken to the University of Colorado Hospital.
Warner Bros. studio released a statement Friday morning saying the studio is "deeply saddened to learn about this shocking incident.
The Associated Press and Denver Post Staff Writers Eric Gorsi, Kieran Nicholson, Michael Booth and Tegan Hanlon contributed to this report