AURORA, Colo. (AP) - An eager audience forgoing sleep to take in the midnight showing of "The Dark Knight Rises" instead were witnesses Friday to a bloody mass shooting at a suburban Denver movie theater. Police said a man clad in black threw a canister that spewed smoke before he opened fire. Witnesses said that at first, they thought it was a prank or a stunt.
UPDATES ON SHOOTING: http:// bit.ly/ NCDA2t Trey Freeman, who was inside the theater, said he first thought the man might somehow be part of the show. The man threw a tear gas canister near where he was sitting, but the danger did not register with him until the canister exploded.
Then, without saying a word, the man threw a second gas canister, Freeman said in a YouTube video.
Then the gunman shot steadily at the audience, not speaking. Some of their accounts:
Jennifer Seeger, 25, from Aurora said she was in the second row, about four feet from the gunman, when he pointed a gun at her face.
At first, "I was just a deer in headlights. I didn't know what to do," she said. Then she ducked to the ground.
The gunman shot people seated behind her.
"There were bullet (casings) just falling on my head. They were burning my forehead," Seeger said.
The gunman fired steadily except when he stopped to reload.
"Every few seconds it was just `Boom, boom, boom,"' she said.
"He would reload and shoot and anyone who would try to leave would just get killed," she said.
Seeger said she began crawling toward an exit when she saw a girl about 14 years old, "lying lifeless on the stairs."
She saw a man with a bullet wound in his back and tried to check his pulse, but "I had to go. I was going to get shot."
"I thought it was showmanship. I didn't think it was real," she said.
Sylvana Guillen, 20, said when a man appeared at the front of the theater clad in dark clothing looking like a SWAT team member as Catwoman made an appearance in the movie, the audience "thought it was a joke, a hoax."
Then they heard gunshots and smelled smoke from a canister he was carrying, and Guillen knew it was real.
The gunman began walking toward the seats and firing. Guillen said she told her friend, Misha Mostashiry, "You better get ready to be shot."
Mostashiry, also 20, said they couldn't tell where the gunman was.
"All you could do is hope he didn't come for you," she said.
"We ran to the emergency exit and nothing happened. Nothing happened to us," Mostashiry said, with surprise and relief in her voice.
On their dash to the exit, they saw a man slip in the blood of a wounded woman he was trying to help.
Tanner Coon told the NBC "Today" show he was at the movie with a friend and his friend's 12-year-old brother when about 20 minutes into the movie the gunman appeared. Coon said that when they realized they were being shot at, they got on the floor in front of their seats.
After "a period of quiet" everyone started to run out.
He said he went to a row behind him and "slipped on some blood and landed" on a woman. He said he shook her, telling her they needed to get out, but she was unresponsive and he "presumed she was dead." He said the 12-year-old was "freaking out" and "really upset" after they escaped the theater.
Jaime Marshall, 23, said she had tickets to theater 9, where the gunman opened fire, but had decided before the movie to watch next door in theater 8 with friends.
She said that about 20 minutes in, as a shooting scene played out on the screen, she heard "fire cracker" sounds, and thought someone might be playing a joke. Marshall said people started leaving en masse and the alarm system started blaring. Marshall said she and her friends just sat there confused until someone ran in and told people not to go into the lobby because "someone's shooting people out there."
She said she wasn't sure if it was a prank, but the group decided to leave. Marshall said that as she made her way out of the theater, she saw a girl with a gunshot wound to her leg.
Moviegoer William Kent told CBS "This Morning" he was in theater 8, next door to the theater where the shooting happened.
"There was a lot going on in the soundtrack of the movie at that time. So in the beginning, I don't think people realized what was happening," he said.
Kent said he saw pieces of the wall fall out, apparently as shots came through, and the emergency alarm went off. The theater told people to leave.
"There was huge commotion to get out of the theater and when I exited, there were police with assault rifles running in."
"I went out to enjoy a movie and I ended up in a gruesome thing. I don't know how you would qualify it. I think it seems like a terrorist act."
Nichole Griek said her 13- and 14-year-old daughters were in the
theater when they saw a man dressed in black and wearing a mask step out of the shadows at the front of the theater. They thought he was part of the movie presentation, before he threw out a canister that started smoking and opened fire.
Griek's daughters and their friends bolted from the theater, leaving behind their cellphones, shoes and other belongings. Griek's daughters were unhurt.
"You'd think you'd be able to drop your kid off at the movie theaters, but you can't," she said.
Chandler Brannon tells ABC's "Good Morning America" he was in the theater with his girlfriend when he saw smoke and heard popping sounds that he at first believed were fireworks.
When he realized they were gunshots, Brannon said he and his girlfriend and others ducked. He said he and his girlfriend played dead as what sounded like 50 to 70 shots were fired.
He said that because of the smoke, he didn't get a good look at the shooter but saw a silhouette of a person with a gun.
Jordan Crofter, 19, of Aurora, said the suspected gunman "looked like an assassin ready to go war."
Crofter was sitting on the left side of the theater and toward the front when the door swung open and a silhouette appeared in front of the street lights.
He said the shooter was calm and almost strutted in, then pulled up his rifle and started shooting, stopping only to reload -- like "shooting fish in a barrel."
When he saw two gas canisters hit the ground, Crofter immediately ran out of the theater.
Crofter said he was the first one in the lobby and when the manager asked what was going on, he yelled, "Bomb."
Julia Nguyen, 17, said she saw something fly across the theater, which she thought, at first, was a stink bomb, and then saw a flash.
Then she saw the gunman.
"He was absolutely quiet. He didn't say a word. He just started firing rounds," said Nguyen, who ran out of theater as fast as she could with her friend, Erin Post, 15.
Post said the gunman fired round after round.
"It just kept going and going and going. Like bam after bam after bam," she said. "Between every flash you could kind of see a gas mask."
Outside the theater, they found a 16-year-old bloody and limping boy, suffering from wounds to his thigh and lower calf.
They said they got the teen into the backseat of their car and used belts to put a makeshift tourniquet to stop the bleeding from his leg. They said he kept saying he wanted to find his little sister and that he wanted to pray with them.
They prayed in the car until an ambulance could take him to the hospital.
Joel Wheelersburg, 27, said he went to the movie with a church group that included his brother and sister-in-law.
"The first gun scene (in the movie) is where we heard real bullet shots, real gunshots, from our right," he said.
"It sounded like special effects, and from there we saw what seemed like ash or dust from the walls. We saw the smoke coming over, and that's kind of when we knew something wasn't right."
Wheelersburg said people started scrambling to get out through exits at the front and rear of the theater. He heard someone say there was somebody with a gun.
Wheelersburg and his group got out through the lobby and then went outside.
"It was there in the parking lot that reality sunk in. There were so many lights, there was helicopters, police officers, people are literally being carried by other normal people like us," he said.
Later, the group kneeled and prayed.
Eric Hunter, 23, said it all started with smoke.
"There was smoke that came in. It had to be a smoke bomb because there was a significant amount of smoke that came in to the theater. Then the gunshots happened," he said.
He and his friends thought what they were hearing firecrackers that were part of the movie. So, they settled back to continue watching the movie for another 10 to 20 seconds before they heard several more shots.
"We knew something was wrong because people started getting up, moving out,"
Hunter said he and his friends made their way to an exit. When Hunter opened the door, he saw two teenage girls -- one shot in the mouth and the other one crying.
Hunter said he was about to close the door when he saw the gunman, dressed in black, wearing what appeared to be a bullet proof vest, and a gas mask.
"He's coming my way so I shut the door. So I hold the door for a little bit. He's banging on the door for about 10 seconds,"
Hunter said he was afraid gunman would shoot through door, so he let it go and managed to get out of the theater.
He said he and other people went back to the theater to help people evacuate but officials were urging people to leave.
Later, Hunter said police began entering the theater, asking people to hold their hands up as they evacuated the building.
Alex Milano told CNN affiliate KUSA that he was in the theater near where the shooting took place.
He also was watching "The Dark Knight Rises," and there was a shooting scene happening on screen.
"Loud bangs came from the right of the
theater. Smoke took over the entire theater, and it was really thick, and no one could really see anything," he said.
Confused at first, Milano realized the severity of the incident when he witnessed "objects" starting to come through the wall, presumably bullets.
"I saw holes in the wall," he said.
Some people in his theater started moaning in pain, and alarms at the building started sounding.
Outside, Milano spoke with a woman who was inside Theater 9. What she heard "sounded like madness to me," he said.
The woman described a man, about 6 feet tall, who kicked in the door and wore a bulletproof vest and a riot helmet and black goggles. The woman told Milano that she saw the shooter slowly making his way up the steps, firing.
One scene stuck in his head -- a police officer carrying a little girl in his arms. The girl wasn't moving.
CNN contributed to this report.