LAFAYETTE, La. — By most accounts, it started off as a regular night at the movies.
Like others around him, Jonah Slason was at the Grand Theater 16 to escape the humid Lafayette night and be entertained by the antics of comedian Amy Schumer in “Trainwreck.”
Then the bullets started flying.
The first pop didn’t quite sound like a gunshot.
“I wasn’t sure what it was,” he said.
But then came the others.
“That’s when I realized what it could possibly be … and my friend and I ran,” he said.
By the time the gun went silent, three people had died, including the gunman, who had shot himself. Nine others were wounded.
The rest emerged shaken and saddened — strangers in a darkened room for whom an ordinary outing Thursday night had suddenly turned into an extraordinary ordeal.
Scramble for cover
“I almost thought it was part of the movie at first,” said Jalen Fernell, who was in a theater next door when the shots rang out.
He realized it was not when an alarm went off, followed by an intercom message asking patrons to get out of the movieplex
“Immediately we get terrified because they are telling us to head out to vehicles … we don’t know whether the shooter is in the parking lot,” he said.
“It was kinda like a war going on … gunshots after gunshots.”
Keifer Sanders, too, was in a theater next door when the screen suddenly went black.
Crowds ran outside, unaware of what was going on.
“I spoke to another guy that was actually in the movie theater that the shooting happened,” Sanders said.
“What he said was they were sitting down … it was quiet, there was no argument, nothing going on at all,” he said.
Suddenly a man stood up and started shooting.
“Everybody scrambled … and the guy was just kind of at ease, just standing there, just shooting,” Sanders said.
Teacher saves colleague
Despite the fear and heartbreak, stories of heroism emerged.
One was about two teachers who had gone to watch the movie when the shooter opened fire, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said.
“Her friend literally jumped over her,” he said. “If her friend hadn’t done that, she believed the bullet would have hit her in the head.”
A bullet struck her leg instead, but she managed to get to a fire alarm and pull it.
“When you think about it — two friends together — one jumps in the way of a bullet to save her friend’s life,” Jindal said from the scene of the shooting. “The other, even though she was shot in the leg, she had the presence of mind to pull the fire alarm and in the process saved other people’s lives.”
Both teachers survived. Authorities didn’t release their names.
‘Like a movie itself’
About 100 people were inside the theater when the gunman began firing randomly.
As they left, they took with them sights meant only for the big screen.
“I saw people bleeding from the leg, they were shot,” said Paige Bearb. “And I was like ‘Wow.’ It was like a movie itself.”
Robert Martinez, who was in a different auditorium and ran for cover, said he saw terrified victims struggling to escape.
“I see a lady full of blood in a dress,” Martinez said. “She was just looking at me in complete fear. I didn’t understand what was happening at the moment.”
A city full of optimism
By early Friday, authorities identified the shooter as 58-year-old John Russel Houser.
“He bought a ticket and went into the theater. And sometime during the movie, he started shooting,” said Sgt. Brooks David of the Louisiana State Police.
Though Houser’s motive is unclear, David said, he appeared to be working alone.
“There’s not a secondary shooter. That’s not the case at this time,” David said. “We want to make sure the citizens understand that.”
The nine injured range in age from late teens to the 60s, police said. One victim has been released; another is in surgery and is “not doing well,” he said early Friday morning.
The shooting occurred about a week after the conviction of James Holmes in the Aurora, Colorado, theater shooting that left 12 people dead and 70 people wounded.
That shooting was on July 20, 2012, nearly three years ago to the day.
Back in Lafayette, Slason wanted to get as far away from the theater as he could. As soon as he got into the parking lot, he got a ride and left.
He’s a regular at the theater in his native Lafayette, a city of about 120,000 people. He said he knows his hometown will pull through the tragedy.
“I’m never worried about our city,” he said. “Because our city is strong, our city is full of life and love, our city is full of optimism.”