AURORA, Colo. (USA TODAY) - As this Denver suburb slowly emerges from the chaos and grief surrounding Friday's movie theater massacre that killed 12 and wounded 58, local police and other first responders are getting high praise for their fast response.
The alleged shooter, James Holmes, had ample time to methodically plan his attack on a movie theater crowded with hundreds of filmgoers and, authorities say, to rig his apartment with booby traps and explosives.
Aurora police officers and firefighters were on hand within 90 seconds after emergency calls and alarms from Century 16, where a scene of bloody mayhem was fast evolving about 20 minutes after the opening of The Dark Knight Rises. Police quickly secured Holmes' arrest and spirited scores of wounded to nearby hospitals.
Holmes, 24, is scheduled to appear in Arapahoe County Court on Monday morning.
If not for fast-reacting law enforcement agencies, the death and injury toll at both crime scenes might have been far higher, authorities say.
"It could have been far worse," Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper says. "The work of law enforcement agencies ... has been exceptional."
President Obama, who flew into Colorado on Sunday to meet with victims and their families, praised Aurora Police Chief Dan Oates and other law enforcement officials for a "magnificent" job.
"(Oates) and his officers have done everything right, by the book and with great determination," Obama said.
Eyewitnesses and victims credit speedy first responders with providing comfort and a sense of security and quick transport to several area hospitals, where 11 victims remained in critical condition Sunday.
While celebrating his 19th birthday with friends at the midnight screening, Rory Miller says, he felt shotgun pellets graze his arm. As a fire alarm blared, he and the others struggled over where to escape as others flooded out of the auditorium. They stayed put until a patron ran into the theater, yelling that cops were outside - just the encouragement that energized them to flee.
"There was just a line of police," he says. "We came out of the theater and there was a line of them and then all the cops started running into the theater."
Aurora police drove several of the wounded to hospitals in their patrol cars, probably saving several lives. "That's amazing initiative," said Frank Lansville, director of the Medical Center of Aurora. "Usually, EMS is involved in triaging. But I think it was a natural response for (police officers) to make that sort of decision. I commend them for that because they got the worst patients here first."
Twenty victims were admitted to the University of Colorado Medical Center. "Multiple patients arrived at the same time ... two, three and four per vehicle," said Richard Zane, who chairs the emergency department.
Jennifer Seeger, who was just feet away from the shooter and dove into an aisle as he fired off 20 to 30 rounds from an assault rifle, said she was surprised how quickly police and other first responders arrived.
William Washington, in an adjacent theater with adjoining walls peppered with about a dozen bullets, said frightened theatergoers were frozen with fear until someone ran from the lobby, yelling cops were outside. Their presence emboldened people to flee, he said.
Much of the official praise has been heaped upon Oates, the former New York beat cop who rose to head that department's intelligence unit. After 21 years at the NYPD, Oates left to head the Ann Arbor, Mich., police force until assuming command in Aurora in 2005.
Colorado Department of Safety chief Jim Davis describes Oates as "the consummate cop."
"If he's in the room, you know it," Davis said. "His favorite saying is, 'I love police work.' He says it all the time, and he absolutely means it. His blood is blue."
Oates, who declined interview requests, has displayed both flashes of anger at Holmes and a sense of humor in press briefings.
After a remote-controlled robot from the Adams County Sheriff's Department disarmed the triggering devices to the improvised explosive devices in Holmes' apartment on Saturday, Oates said there was no question the IEDs were "designed to kill whoever entered it," and most likely that would have been a police officer. "Make no mistake about it ... if you think we are angry, we sure as hell are angry," he said.
But he also expressed gratitude and relief that his department wouldn't be footing the bill to replace the robot if it had been destroyed while disabling a trip wire made from fishing line that had been tied to incendiary devices.
Davis says the coordinated response to the shootings and neutralizing Holmes' booby-trapped apartment showed the strong leadership of Aurora's police, which provided important assistance in the 2009 investigation of Najibullah Zazi, an Afghan immigrant living near Aurora, who was later convicted of plotting to bomb targets in New York City, including the subway system. Davis, then the FBI's Denver bureau chief, said an Aurora detective was one of the primary case agents.
Aurora police reached out early to neighboring law enforcement agencies, the FBI and ATF. "It was simply a great multi-agency response. "
Aurora police are divided into three districts, each with a rapid-response team to deal with gangs and street crimes. Headquarters is less than a quarter-mile from the theater complex, which may have hastened the quick response.
Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, said Oates background made him ideal to direct the effort at twin crime scenes.
"Oates is recognized for his expertise by his colleagues across the country. He's wired into directing this kind of response. In this case, they were dealing with two sorts of crime scenes and by all accounts the resources were directed where they were needed. You don't know right away what you have, so it's very important that you reach out for help."
Praise for Oates and his department poured in on the department's Facebook page. "God bless you all!" Amanda Lloyd posted. "Thank you for protecting and serving your community so well. Chief Oates, you are an incredible man!"
Johnson reported from McLean, Va. Contributing: Oren Dorell in Aurora.
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