Facing tragedy in Colorado

July 25, 2012

By Shannon Stapleton

I woke on the morning of July 20th happy and looking forward to a great weekend with my son at his last lacrosse tournament of the season.

That feeling of happiness changed quickly when I looked on the phone and it said “Can you get on a plane to Denver as soon as possible, there has been a mass shooting at the screening of Batman with 12 people dead and numerous injured.” My heart started to race and all I could think of was how just five months prior I had responded to the senseless killing of three high school students in Chardon, Ohio. A place close to my heart because it was near where I grew up and had played my last high school football in 1987.

Colorado and the Rocky Mountains have also been a place of very fond memories in my life. I spent the years of 1991 to 1995 there and never forgot the majestic feeling of the mountain lifestyle. I just couldn’t believe this was happening again and especially in the Denver area where I cherished the years spent in the region.

My wife woke and asked what was wrong as I was trying to gather my thoughts, answer emails and figure out the quickest flight out. I said there was a mass killing in Denver and I had to leave as soon as possible. I told her I was sorry because my daughter was supposed to have her first sleep over at our house and I was supposed to take my son to Pennsylvania for his lacrosse tournament. All those plans would have to be scrapped as I frantically tried to book a plane flight out of New York. This is my job – I signed up for this and she knows that. Covering the big assignment is why I became a photojournalist. Explaining to your kids that Daddy has to leave right now is never easy and trying to explain why even harder. I booked a flight, packed my bags and said I love them and would see them in a week.

In my career I have covered my share of death, despair and sorrow. It never gets easier to prepare for mentally. Anybody that says it does is fooling themselves. I knew to expect the sorrow and grief that would emanate through the family, friends and the entire community. But you can’t prepare yourself for the woman who lost her 6 year old niece, the kids who lost a classmate or the overall sorrow that such a tragic event can have on a community. Grief is genuine and not something that can be faked. Capturing the images surrounding such a tragic event is why a photograph is worth a thousand words.

Like in Chardon, Ohio, I was overwhelmed by the sense of community and outpouring of good will. When I first arrived a small memorial site had been started on the hillside behind the theater where the killings took place and a prayer vigil was held.

There were prayers for the victims, injured and some even prayed for the killer. Something that reminded me of the community feeling in Chardon. Forgiveness among the devout extends all boundaries. By the time I left on Wednesday that memorial site had became massive with letters, flowers and crosses honoring the deceased victims line up along the whole hillside.

Even Batman himself, Christian Bale, showed up to pay his respects. On Sunday thousands of people attended a more formal vigil that was held behind the Aurora Public Library. Every day people came to pay their respects at the site and the outpouring of emotion was never-ending.

For five days straight I kept looking to the west at the Rocky Mountains in the distance saying to myself “I really need to get up there and clear my head.” It wasn’t the 100 degree heat on the lowlands that was drawing me to them. It was that I remembered how being at 9,000 plus feet above sea level on top of the world with nobody else around can really cleanse the soul. I got that opportunity on Tuesday and drove to the little mountain town of Georgetown, Colorado where I drove up to pass and took a hike. I saw deer running wild and while perched on a mountainside a silhouette of a moose swimming in a lake.

Living in New York this tranquility is unheard of. I will always cherish those moments of serenity after a really tough five days of covering what I hope and pray no community will have to endure again – something I also realize may be a delusion of grandeur.

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