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Grad Was in Colorado Theater During Shootings

July 2012 | by Craig DeVrieze

An Ohio teen in a group of 11 young people chaperoned by Steve Ostergaard '07 was among the first of 58 movie-goers injured, while another 12 were killed, in a mass shooting at an Aurora, Colo., cineplex on July 20.

A teacher in Waukegan, Ill., Ostergaard is a member of the advisory board of FRIENDS: The National Association Young People Who Stutter. He was participating in that group's annual convention in the Denver area when he volunteered to take a group of 11 convention attendees, ages 14-22, to a late-night premier of "The Dark Knight Rises."

"These kids have a lot of social anxiety issues because they stutter," said Ostergaard, whose sister stutters and whose family is one of two remaining from a group that attended the initial FRIENDS convention 15 years ago. "I thought taking them to a midnight showing would be something cool they wouldn't ordinarily be able to do."

Four days after the incident, Ostergaard, 27, said he still hadn't processed what happened some 30 minutes into the movie, when he heard a hissing and then saw smoke pouring out of a stairwell between Theaters 8 and 9, which were simultaneously showing the film at the Century 16 complex located 20 minutes east of Denver.

Seated in Theater 8 with his group beside a wall that separated the two theaters, Ostergaard then heard what sounded like firecrackers popping on the other side of the wall. Seconds later, he heard Gage Hankins, an 18-year-old from Forest, Ohio, say he had been hit.

Ostergaard turned and saw a gash he described as an inch in diameter on the younger man's arm. Uncertain what had happened, he led Hankins into the lobby and saw that "he was bleeding very badly. His whole right side was covered in blood."

The teacher said he suspected the injury was a gunshot wound, but said, "I didn't realize there was a mass murder going on." While looking for help in an empty lobby, Ostergaard said he heard "multiple, multiple gunshots" and saw people, some bloodied and wounded, streaming out of Theater 9.

The rest of Ostergaard's group soon followed from the adjacent theater, and while two of the older boys carried Hankins outside, Ostergaard led the group to the building's front parking lot. The suspected gunman was arrested minutes later beside his car in a rear parking lot of the cineplex.

Hankins later underwent surgery at a nearby hospital, where four pieces of shrapnel were removed from his right forearm. Although the boy's father told an Ohio newspaper that young Hankins was in "excruciating pain," Ostergaard said the teen waited 30 minutes to be taken to the hospital, encouraging emergency responders to first attend to more gravely wounded victims.

Police suspect Hankins' wound was caused not by a gunshot, but by remnants from an exploding gas canister, Ostergaard said.

"They are thinking (the gunman) threw a smoke bomb into our theater so that by the time he had finished shooting up Theater 9, we would be out in the lobby and he'd start shooting us," Ostergaard said. "He didn't move fast enough."

Ostergaard said the final days of the convention were somber. On the other hand, he said, "The kids grew a lot closer because of what happened. Everyone was so kind and helpful to each other."

At home in Cary, Ill., Ostergaard said he hadn't spent much time reliving the experience. The pain from a broken arm he suffered a day before the shooting had been more on his mind, he said.

"Honestly, I'm still not processing it," he said of the experience. "Which probably isn't the best thing. I either had the convention to deal with or I have been doing media interviews. It will hit me sooner or later."

Still, he vowed he would not allow himself to be traumatized or changed. "You have to keep living life to the fullest and not be afraid," he said. "People ask if I am still going to go to the movies? Yep. I'm going to ‘The Dark Knight Rises' on (July 27) with my friends.

"You can't be afraid," he said. "If you are afraid, these people, these mass murderers, they win."

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