Out of the darkness: After surviving Aurora shooting, recent SU graduate refocuses on the future
He was just one face in the panicked crowd. One among swarms of people piling out of the second-floor Colorado theater’s exit, frantically making their way toward the stairs that would carry them through the main lobby and out its freeing doors.
Stephen Barton’s face was a jarring one. A torn face, bleeding from the shotgun pellets that, minutes ago, had pierced his neck and face. A face that frightened the people ahead of him who caught sight of it as they looked back, scanning the room for the gunman.
Barton didn’t look back once.
Moments later, he sat in the back of a police car on his way to the hospital with another wounded stranger.
“Are you religious?” the man asked Barton.
“No, not really,” Barton told him.
“I’ll pray for you anyways,” the man said.
Barton, a 2012 graduate of Syracuse University, found himself caught in a freak occurrence — the July 20 shooting in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater that resulted in 12 people dead and more than 50 injured.
Still recovering from the shooting, he traveled to SU this weekend to announce that University Union’s Juice Jam concert this year would benefit the victims of the shooting.
Stephen Barton is a planner.
One of those students who, this time last year, started plotting out each step of his post-graduation life. He was a senior at SU, enrolled in the College of Arts and Sciences, with a passion for the Russian language and a flair for success.
Like every other senior, Barton would get excited about Juice Jam, basketball games and MayFest — and that one, suddenly warm day in spring that broke the laws of frigid Syracuse weather, in which everyone on campus hit the Quad.
Unlike every other senior, Barton was a Coronat Scholar, meaning his full tuition was paid for all four years. He was a University Scholar, one of eight to 12 academically outstanding seniors. He was a Remembrance Scholar and the 2012 class marshal, who gave the student commencement speech last May.
Take pictures, he told his classmates, according to the transcript. Document everything. Capture the most meaningful moments of your life.
Barton was a Fulbright Scholar, too, and one year ago, he applied for the prestigious program, which accepted him in April and awarded him grant money to spend a year abroad in Russia teaching English.
His plan was grand, exciting and meticulously sculpted. He worked with several Russian professors, studied the language excessively and wrote up a research project on the sex trade of Eastern European women — in Russian — that he then presented orally in Russian to his class, said Erika Haber, an associate Russian professor.
Barton would have arrived in Russia next week, on Sept. 21, and then flown from Moscow to the town he’d be teaching in, Kazan. He admits he was nervous about flying between the two cities, since Russia holds the world’s worst air safety record. Seven Russian plane crashes killed 121 people this year, according to a Sept. 12, 2011 Voice of America article.
But that’s only 7.5 crashes per 1 million flights.
The odds of being the victim of a mass shooting are just as obscure, according to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The probability is less than .01 percent.
Stephen Barton is an American.
As an American, he needed to be able to answer questions about America — about the West Coast, the Midwest and the South, and everything outside of his home state of Connecticut. While studying abroad in Spain, Barton remembers being asked questions about America he couldn’t answer himself, and so he and his best friend since childhood, Ethan Rodriguez-Torrent, set out to discover their country.
His mother didn’t want him to. Christine Barton said she would’ve liked Stephen to stay home for the summer, since he was going to Russia for a year.
Barton said they’d estimated the trip would take about 75 days — 1,450 miles. It’d be a winding road that kicked off in Virginia Beach and branched over to Kentucky, south to Mississippi, west to Louisiana, over to Texas, up to Oklahoma, east into Colorado and, eventually, to their end point: San Francisco.
“We had to see everything,” he said. “Experience everything.”
They started as amateurs at first, not travelling anywhere nearly as quickly as they had hoped, and on their first night set up a tent at about 3 a.m. and were stopped by police, who thought they were criminals on the run.
One night, while in the poor, “third-world” central Mississippi, they stopped at a bar for some food and were approached by rough-looking locals, who gave Barton and Rodriguez-Torrent a tough time for being “Yankees” and out-of-towners stopping at their bar. But by the end of the night, they bought the boys beers and even offered them a night’s stay in their trailer home.
It was rough. Dangerous, even. They lugged their clothes and supplies on their bikes. Some nights in the tent were humid and sticky, marred by huge mosquitoes, while other days saw flat tires from littered shoulders of the road. They’d spend five hours in a gas station waiting for a storm to pass.
“I fell to the ground in front of my seat and watched my arm just hanging there; I was glad it was there, because I couldn’t feel it."
Stephen Barton, shooting survivor
They enjoyed the towns they didn’t plan to stop at the most. Barton kept up with his commencement speech’s memory-capturing motto, posting photo after photo on his Instagram account. The memories captured weren’t all majestic photos of Texas prairies and Oklahoma grasslands, though.
They included the graciousness of the American people. A man in Virginia offered them warm showers, and a Texas rancher gave Barton and Rodriquez-Torrent $20 each.
His final Instagram of the bike trip would be of his biking glove-clad hand holding a ticket to a 12:05 a.m. showing of “The Dark Knight Rises” in Colorado, with the caption “#cycletrip goes to the movies.”
Christine Barton gradually warmed up to the trip as it went on. She checked Barton’s Twitter for the pictures each morning, and talked to her son each night.
“I was worried about him being hit by a truck on the side of the road or getting mugged,” she said. “But then I realized there wasn’t anything to worry about.”
Stephen Barton is a gentleman.
So when he and Rodriguez –Torrent arrived in Aurora, Colo., for a quick pit-stop before seeing the Rockies, they decided to treat their hostess, Petra Anderson, to a movie.
They arrived in Aurora a few hours earlier than planned. They spent some time with Anderson’s mother, sister and brother. Barton said when he asked her if she wanted to see the movie, she was “all for it.”
Anderson would get three pellets in her arm, one that travelled near her nose, right before the skull channel traveling to her brain.
Barton and Rodriquez-Torrent had talked about the movies they wanted to see during the bike trip for recreation. They talked about “The Dark Knight Rises” the most, though they didn’t necessarily plan for the midnight showing.
They were sort of just presented with the opportunity as it came, Barton said.
“It couldn’t have been more normal,” Barton said. Another movie. Another theater.
At 10 p.m. they left for the theater. They were in their seats by 10:30 p.m. They chatted for a while, as did everyone in the theater who eagerly anticipated the movie’s start.
Previews came around and Barton said people were clapping and yelling, growing more and more excited for the movie.
It happened during the scene just after Bruce Wayne’s mother’s pearl necklace is stolen by Catwoman. The canister flew across the screen. It hissed, leaving a trail of smoke. Barton remained in his seat, thinking it was a firework.
Then the shooting began. He still thought the flashes shooting across the dark theater were fireworks.
Barton was shot right in his seat. He realized a split second beforehand what was happening, lifting his arm to shield himself.
“For all I know, it saved my life,” he said.
“I fell to the ground in front of my seat and watched my arm just hanging there; I was glad it was there, because I couldn’t feel it,” he added.
He remembers lying on the ground of the aisle, watching the thick blood stream heavily from his neck to his chest. He didn’t know what to do, he said. The little he did know was what he had learned from war movies: Put pressure on the wound.
His strongest memory is hoping it was a nightmare. That he was asleep. But he also remembers Anderson’s screams and Rodriguez-Torrent calling 911, and everyone rushing toward the exit.
Christine Barton was home alone when she got the 3 a.m. call. It was Rodriguez-Torrent, but he couldn’t talk for long. He had been separated from Barton after Barton was shot too, and couldn’t tell Christine what her son’s condition was.
She flew out to Colorado immediately.
“I just wanted to see him,” she said. “To touch him.”
Stephen Barton is a warrior.
One month later, he’s recovering. He still has a partly numb hand and a weak shoulder, but physical therapy helps. He’ll forever have some pellets left in his body.
But he’s deferred his trip to Russia and plans to continue on in a year when he’s healthy, and even perhaps more proficient in the language. He’s working on a gun control campaign with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
He announced Sunday that $1 from every ticket sold at this year’s Juice Jam concert will be donated to an organization aiding victims of the shooting, the Colorado Organization for Victim Assistance.
Barton still plans. He’ll go to Russia soon. It’s a gradual return to the future. A gradual return to normal.
Said Barton: “I’m doing pretty well.”
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