By Darci Tomly
The Holyoke Enterprise
“It’s moments like these when you decide to fight or flight, and we decided to fight.”
That’s what Todd Peckham told his friend Justin Baker as they were leaving the Century 16 Movie Theaters at the Aurora Town Center last Thursday night, July 19.
Labeled as one of the largest mass shootings in recent history, 12 people were killed and 58 injured in last week’s tragedy. Peckham, a former Holyoke resident, has given some insight—some names and faces—to those who were injured in the shootings.
“As a person, you had a choice,” he said, describing it as a light clicking on and off, saying, “What do I do? What do I do?”
“A lot of people have been saying ‘hero,’” he said, but that word gets thrown around so much it starts to lose its meaning. Peckham’s body told him to go help people, so that’s exactly what he did. “If that’s the definition of ‘hero,’ then I guess that’s what it is.”
Thursday night, Peckham, 41, and Baker, 21, contemplated going to the midnight premier of “The Dark Knight Rises,” the much-anticipated summer Batman movie. Instead, they opted for the 10:20 p.m. showing of “The Amazing Spider-Man,” playing in theater 15 at the movie complex in Aurora.
As the credits rolled across the screen after the movie, four theater employees entered, notifying people they needed to evacuate the theater. Peckham turned to his friend, saying “whatever,” not thinking it was a big deal.
When the employees made the announcement again, the fire alarm went off. “It’s not a fire,” they said. “Just get out of here!”
“You could see the fright, the scare in his face,” said Peckham.
The two made their way out of the theater. Peckham thought the hall looked kind of hazy, so he wondered if it actually was a fire. As people evacuated to the parking lot, they could see a police car parked haphazardly, but still had no idea what was going on.
Peckham said a “crazy mad flood of people” came rushing out of the theater on the opposite end of where they were, and somebody was shouting, “Shots fired! Shots fired!”
As he grabbed a dazed Baker and ran behind some trees, all Peckham could think was, “What do you do?”
He saw three kids carrying a man and motioned them to the trees. Peckham crouched down, holding the head of 27-year-old Carey Rottman, hearing him scream, “I don’t want to die. I need to call my wife. Where is my friend Pierce?”
Peckham recounted the bravery of 17-year-old Stephanie Rodriguez, who had tied her belt around Rottman’s leg and held on tightly to his gunshot wound.
Baker called 911 so they would know their position in the parking lot. Peckham had begun to dial Rottman’s wife Jessica, but before he could make the call, he aided policemen in loading Rottman into a police car. By then the number in his phone was gone, and they still hadn’t found the injured man’s friend.
“In my head I told myself, ‘You’ve got to help more people,’” said Peckham.
He and Baker then saw two girls walking near the theater, with one collapsing to the ground. “All I knew was that it happened inside, and I needed to get people away,” said Peckham.
The 19-year-old girl, Allie Young, was saying “My right side—I can’t breathe! My lungs are filling with blood.” After he could see she could not walk on her own, with two shots in her neck and wounds all down her side, Peckham picked her up, careful to not cause her any more pain than he had to.
He carried her as far as he could to the edge of the parking lot, when he called for two men to help carry her to the ambulance.
Baker stayed with Young, holding her head until she could get help.
Again, Peckham looked for people that needed help. He saw a policeman with a small girl, laying limp in his arms. Peckham still doesn’t know if that was the 6-year-old who died or not.
At this point, it seemed like the injured were being helped and most people were just on their cell phones, notifying family members or trying to locate their friends at the theater.
Peckham and Baker returned to their car, finally able to take in what had just happened. “I’m proud of you,” they told each other. On the way home, they called their families, noting the time was 1:20 a.m., just 40 minutes after the shootings began early Friday morning.
They did not sleep much that night, still wondering what all had taken place in theater 9 that night.
The news and social media eventually told the story. The suspected shooter, 24-year-old James Holmes, allegedly entered the theater minutes into the Batman movie, wearing riot gear and throwing in two gas canisters. He began randomly shooting at the crowd.
“As smart as they say he was, he was equally as crazy,” said Peckham. He might have been living in a superhero fantasy world, but people need to know the difference between fantasy and real life. Peckham said he’s not giving him any leniency.
Since the shootings last week, Peckham has been busy trying to locate the people from the theater.
At a makeshift vigil on Friday, he scanned the crowd for familiar faces. Friday evening, Nick, the employee who sold him his ticket, ran up to Peckham, noting he was glad he wasn’t injured. He talked about how he had been up in the projection room, witnessing the “horror movie” that was taking place in the theater.
Also on Friday, Peckham heard a news report that Rottman and his friend Pierce O’Farrill, who was also shot, were both OK. He was able to meet with Rottman and his family on Monday, and a reporter set up a meeting with Rodriguez, the girl who helped hold the wounded leg.
Both experiences were emotional but cathartic, said Peckham. It was like a weight was lifted off his shoulders.
Rottman explained how Pierce was shot in the theater, so he crouched down with him to protect him. Then he was shot, and when the gunman’s fire paused briefly, he took his chance to run from the theater, leaving O’Farrill, who was no longer responding.
Peckham apologized to Rottman for not being able to call his wife, but he said they were all in good spirits, joking around with him and thanking him for all his help. “I’m not the one with the bullet in the leg,” said Peckham. “This is nothing.”
His reunion with Rodriguez was emotional, as they relived the events of that night. She was telling reporters she’s no hero, she’s just human.
On another news report, Peckham heard Young’s voice and new she was all right. “I’ll never forget her voice.”
After searching for her through the internet and social media, they finally connected. Peckham had planned to meet her at the hospital on Tuesday. “It’s amazing to be able to talk to these people,” said an emotional Peckham.
President Barack Obama heard Young’s touching story of how she was shot in the neck and her friend Stephanie Davies held her hand to the wound.
Peckham, who lives in Aurora and works at his studio/salon in Denver, said he hopes this event won’t keep him from being social and going out to the movies and other gatherings.
On Monday he went back to the theater, and seeing it from the outside gave him a strange “hollow feeling” in the center of his body, something that’s very hard to describe.
He said people want to blame the city, but he’s been to that movie theater many times and has never felt unsafe. He doesn’t know what will happen to the theater now.
He continues to sort out the events and emotions of the last several days.
Peckham’s mom and stepdad, Marcia and Steve Cogburn, live in Holyoke. He is a 1989 graduate of Holyoke High School.