AURORA, Colo. — The images brought it all back for survivors of the 1999 Columbine massacre. The blood. The tears. The confusion and the heartache, the elusive search for a reason why.
Paralyzed in the Columbine shootings, Anne Marie Hochhalter, now 30, says friends still reach out to alert her to prepare for disturbing images on the news. She got a text message Friday morning when she woke up. Warning, it said. There was another one, this time close to home. "Don't watch news," it said. "mass shooting in aurora."
Hochhalter took a deep breath and turned on the TV.
"My heart just fell," Hochhalter said Sunday. "It brought back a lot — flashbacks from that day. At the time, I was so hurt I wasn't watching the news, you know, watching it like other people were. But this time, I was right there, seeing it all."
Columbine students who survived what in 1999 was the worst school massacre in U.S. history are reliving their own experiences. And they're banding together to try to help. On Facebook and by phone, they are reaching out to people who witnessed Friday's early-morning slayings of 12 people at a movie theater in Aurora.
Now a retail manager, Hochhalter said she can offer a little hope.
"I would tell them that with time, it does get better. But it never goes away," she said.
Hochhalter sat in the front row wearing a silver cross around her neck during a vigil for the victims Sunday, joining several thousand people who gathered to pray as the sun set. Mourners released purple balloons and cheered police officers who responded to the shooting. A gospel choir and brass quintet played.
Gov. John Hickenlooper looked choked up in his remarks after meeting relatives of the dead with Obama.
"It was almost like somehow God had come down and picked the most vibrant and alive among us and taken them," the governor said.
Hickenlooper read the name of each victim, with the crowd shouting after each one: "We will remember."
Several pastors spoke, including one who also prayed for "the conversion" of the shooter.
Young people were victims and witnesses in both the theater shootings and the ones at Columbine. The Columbine survivors want those at the movie theater to know that the road ahead of them won't be easy.
"Similar to the graduating senior class from Columbine, they may soon find themselves surrounded by people who have no clue that they were involved in a traumatic event," Columbine survivor Ben Lausten wrote on a Facebook page for survivors of school shootings.
"Breaking down and crying for no apparent reason (which is perfectly normal!) is harder to do in an office, or a business, or in 'normal' society," he said. "These victims have a challenging path ahead of them."
Another piece of advice: Don't waste time trying to figure out what motivated the shooter or shooters.
"It's a waste of time, and it gives them exactly what they want," said Hochhalter, who was eating lunch as a 17-year-old junior when she was shot in the chest and spinal cord on April 20, 1999. Even as the years pass, she said, she's no closer to understanding why Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold shot and killed 11 classmates, a teacher, and then themselves.
"I don't think I'll ever understand," Hochhalter said.
But the Columbine survivors understand this: The Aurora survivors will need to talk. And they promise to listen.
"We know what they are going through, and we can help," wrote Michelle Romero Wheeler, a Columbine survivor who posted links to sites supporting people at the theater shooting.
Facebook page for school shooting survivors: http://www.facebook.com/#!/groups/328393147778