StoryCorps 507: Row 12, Seat 12
Michael Garofalo (MG): We’re coming up on the five-year anniversary of the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting that left 12 people dead and 70 others injured. In this episode, we’re going to learn about some of the people who were in the theater that night.
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Tom Sullivan (ToS): They got there at like 5 o’clock in the afternoon to save seats for everybody.
MG: That’s Tom Sullivan. He lost his son, Alex, who was in the theater with a group of friends. We’ll hear about Alex — and from a survivor.
Maria Carbonell (MC): I just started to sob. And I said, ”I am so sorry that you lost your son and that I still have mine.”
MG: From NPR, this is the StoryCorps podcast. I’m Michael Garofalo. We’ll be right back after this short break.
MG: Welcome back. On July 20, 2012, at a multiplex inside the mall in Aurora, Colorado, a young man named James Holmes tossed tear gas canisters into a crowded midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises — one of the batman movies. He then opened fire on the moviegoers. Twelve people died; 70 were injured.
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When this happened, five years ago, there had never been a shooting with that many casualties in U.S. history. The Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016 has since taken over that awful title.
We’re marking the fifth anniversary with a remembrance of someone killed that night, Alex Sullivan, known to his friends as Sully.
His parents, Tom and Terry Sullivan, recently recorded a StoryCorps interview. And they told us that ever since Alex was a small child, he had a tradition — he would go to the movies for his birthday. And that night was his birthday. And he had gathered a group of friends for the midnight showing to celebrate, just as he turned 27.
Tom Sullivan (ToS): They got there at like 5 o’clock in the afternoon to save seats for everybody. And Alex had bought himself a Batman hat and he was in line, palling around with this little boy, who I think was like 12. And before they went into the movie, Alex gave him the Batman hat.
Terry Sullivan (TeS): He just wanted everybody to be happy.
ToS: That was Alex. That night, one of the previews was for the new Superman movie.
ToS: When that preview came on, Alex stood up out of his seat and started cheering and a lot of people laughed. You know, we can take some comfort in the fact that Alex was the one who gave these people their last laughs.
I remember when I called my mom and I told her there’s been a shooting and Alex was in the theater; that was the first time I ever heard her cry. The day he was born I told her from the hospital that she had a grandson, and then 27 years to the day, I had to call her again and tell her that her grandson had been murdered. You know, when the theater reopened we were there, and have gone back several times.
TeS: I knew you had to go, and especially on his birthday.
ToS: I remember saying we’re gonna celebrate Alex’s birthday the way that we always have. And so we’ll go and sit in Alex’s seat that he was murdered in. You know, row 12, seat 12.
That’s where he was and that’s where we will always be. So that’ll never stop.
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MG: Tom and Terry Sullivan, remembering their son, Alex, who was killed in the Aurora movie theater shooting on July 20th, 2012.
MG: Joining me now is Liyna Anwar, who produced this story, and Mia Warren, who facilitated the recording. Hi, guys.
Liyna Anwar (LA): Hi.
Mia Warren (MW): Hey, Michael.
MG: It’s so incredible to me that they went back to the same theater — and sat in the same seat even.
LA: Yeah, it was hard. I mean, even though Tom and Terry have gone back to the theater a bunch of times, last year was the first time they actually went on his birthday, the day he was killed. Usually, they try to avoid crowds that day. But this time, they felt they wanted to go to the theater just like Alex used to do. Here’s Tom again.
ToS: We were sitting there on July 20th and there were people in the theater there with us who didn’t give it another thought. And one part of me was like, “Do you know what today is?” And the other part of me was like, “Good. I’m glad that you don’t have to dwell on it because I think about it enough for everybody.”
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MG: Do you guys know, did Alex’s parents ever see the movie that Alex was watching when he was killed, The Dark Knight Rises?
MW: Yeah, Tom talked about that in the interview.
ToS: I’ve seen it, you know, several times. I went two weeks after and I said I don’t know if I’m going to be able to stay or not, but I have to try. And I stayed all the way through and I remember saying, “I know how much he would’ve enjoyed that movie.”
MG: So, those two piece of tape really give me a sense of what kind of person Tom is — I’d have to say a pretty strong one. How about Alex? What else can you tell me about him?
LA: Alex’s parents told us that their son was just that type of guy who could make friends with anyone. Tom and Alex loved hockey, for example. And when they were at the games Tom said you could turn away for just one second and next thing you know, Alex would be down by the glass making friends with the zamboni driver.
MG: The zamboni is that thing that cleans the ice, right? That machine?
LA: Right. He’d be interested in the guy driving that, or getting signed posters from the backup goalie. He just loved people.
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You know, that night, Alex was at the movies with a group of friends — they took up the whole 12th row of the theater. And Alex’s parents said he was the person who could get other people excited about things they may not have cared about. So he gathered a bunch of his colleagues from the restaurant he worked at and they all went together. But when they looked at their tickets, they realized that some people in the group got split up into a different theater. So, Alex, being the guy he was, exchanged everyone’s tickets so they could all be together in the same screening. He didn’t want anyone to be left out. But tragically, that theater they all moved to is where the shooting took place.
MG: So, if they hadn’t switched theaters, they would’ve been in a totally different screening and nobody from their group would have been killed or hurt.
MG: Do you know anything about Alex’s friends? What happened to them?
MW: Alex was the only one who got killed, even though they were all sitting next to each other. Here’s Tom.
ToS: Six of his friends were shot. One of his friends had three of her fingers blown off of her hand. And it was all so random. It was — if you sat here, nothing happened. If you sat there, you know, you were killed.
MG: It makes me wonder about the kid, the one in line that Alex gave the Batman hat to.
LA: Yeah, his name is Armondo, and he’s the son of one of Alex’s coworkers. Her name is Maria Carbonell. And they escaped the theater safely.
MW: And, actually, we spoke with Maria on the phone to find out more about what happened when her son met Alex and gave him the hat.
Maria Carbonell (MC): He was like, “Hey! You know, I know you really love Batman. I was able to get this for you.” And I remember my son was like…he looked a little shocked. But loved it.
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MW: Maria told us it was typical of Alex to give someone else a gift on his own birthday. That’s who he was. And that hat took on a lot more meaning after the shooting.
MC: After we all got out of the movie theater and I’m standing there, looking at all the chaos, you know, I’m covered in blood. And my son was like, ”Do you have my hat?” and I was like, ”No, I don’t have your hat. You must have left it there.”
You know, for a child, to meet someone and have them killed seven seats down from where you were sitting, that is a lot to have to process. And that hat, it is a good memory of that night.
And, it became very, very important that I had to get that hat back for my son. So, that was like my mission. Every police officer that I spoke to, any person I got a chance to ask, it was, ”There is a black Batman hat. Please, when you guys are done documenting evidence — please, can I please get that hat back?”
MG: So, did they ever get it?
MW: Yeah. Eventually Maria got it back from the crime scene. And she gave it to her son.
MC: He took the hat to his bedroom and hung it up right next to his bed. And that’s where it stayed. And he still has it. And he was wearing it the other day. [Laughs]
LA: That wasn’t the only gift that passed between Maria and Alex’s families. Maria and her son went to Alex’s wake. And Armondo told Alex’s dad how, that night at the movie theater, the two of them bonded over their love of the superhero, Green Lantern. And then, Armondo gave Alex’s dad a Green Lantern comic book as a gift. He was really touched by that and he still has it today.
MW: And the wake also had a really important impact on Maria and on Alex’s mom, Terry.
MC: I remember walking up to Terry and I just started to sob. And I said, ”I am so sorry that you lost your son and that I still have mine.” And I remember when I told her that, she just grabbed me and um…just squeezed the dickens out of me. And she — she gives the best hugs. And all I felt was warmth, and kindness. That was probably one of the first things that actually started my healing, was that hug from Terry.
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MW: That was a real turning point for Maria. In fact, in the months that followed, she would go on to find a new calling as a counselor helping other people work through their trauma.
MC: I went from serving tables to working into the mental health field. I had no idea on July 20th that this is where I was going to end up. Using my story from the theater shooting to help others.
MG: So, guys, we’re coming up on July 20th — do you know what Alex’s family, or Maria and his other friends, are doing to mark it?
LA: Yeah, we asked Tom and Terry what they plan to do this year and they’re still a little unsure if they’re going back to the theater. You know, for them, it really depends on how they’re feeling on the day of the anniversary.
MW: As far as his friends, Maria told me that they get together at Alex’s favorite bar on every anniversary and toast to his memory. I guess when you have this larger than life friend who had a gift for bringing people together, the best way to remember him is to do just that.
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MG: Mia, Liyna, thank you so much for sharing this story with us.
MW: Thanks, Michael.
LA: Yeah, thanks for having us.
MG: That’s it for this episode, produced by me, Liyna Anwar, Mia Warren, and Elisheba Ittoop. Special thanks to Stefanie Clark. Remember to rate or review us on Apple podcasts or wherever you download the show.
And if you want to leave a message for the people you heard in this episode.. We’ve got a voicemail line where you can call in… and we’ll share your message with the participants and maybe even on a future episode of this podcast. The number to call is 301-744-TALK. That’s 301-744-T-A-L-K.
Until next time, for the StoryCorps podcast, I’m Michael Garofalo. Thanks for listening.