Jim Carney

Carli Richards instinctively knew the smell.

The former Summit County woman had learned all about tear gas in Navy basic training.

And so when a tear gas canister was tossed at her and her boyfriend inside the dark theater in Aurora, Colo., during the midnight premiere a week ago of the Batman movie The Dark Knight Rises, her “fight or flight” instinct kicked in.

“I dropped my purse on the way out with all of my cards — insurance, ID, bank card as well as my cell phone and car keys,” Richards, 22, said of her escape as a gunman fired into the crowded theater.

Authorities say James Holmes killed a dozen moviegoers and wounded nearly 60, including Richards.

The Akron native ran for the exit as soon as the gunfire started with her boyfriend, also a Navy veteran, following close behind.

Richards has chronicled her ordeal on her blog, www.carlirotten.net, and also on Facebook. Contacted by email, Richards said she is still recovering from her wounds.

“The instinct [to] keep running overpowered any other thought in my mind,” she wrote.

As she fled the theater, Richards said, she realized many around her were not moving.

“If my partner and I had not taken responsibility for ourselves at some point in our lives and joined the U.S. Navy, we would not have immediately recognized the smell of tear gas,” she wrote.

Soaked in blood

They ran from the theater to their parked car. It was there, Richards said, that she realized that her T-shirt — a vintage Joker shirt from the 1980s that had belonged to her dad — was soaked in blood.

“The pain began to sink in,” she wrote. “I had never, ever felt pain like that before in my entire life.”

In the hospital, she said, doctors told her she had been hit with buckshot from a shotgun in her right arm, both legs, chest, back and buttocks.

“Thankfully he used the shotgun and not the slugs because otherwise, the back and chest wounds might have been fatal,” she said.

From Akron to the Navy

Richards attended Central- Hower High School, but after it closed, moved to Garfield High School and graduated from there in 2008 and entered the Navy soon after graduation.

In an email interview, she said she worked as an aviation machinist mate and was stationed at Navy Air Station Lemoore in California and aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan.

Following her discharge, she moved to Denver, where she is a student and works as a model, singer and entertainer. She also works at Macy’s as a sales associate.

In her youth, she was a member of the Summit Choral Society. At the Art Institute of Colorado, she is studying fashion retail management.

On the night of the shooting, Richards and her boyfriend, Chris Townson, sat about 10 rows back from the front.

Richards said they noticed an emergency door on the other side of the theater open and saw a man appear wearing what looked like a gas mask and some type of combat gear, along with a helmet.

“I was immediately a little freaked out, but I assumed that it was a promotional stunt from the theater,” she wrote.

Next she said she heard a “weird popping noise and then a can or something came flying toward us. The can landed at our feet.”

The hissing canister spelled trouble, Richards recounted.

“In a split second I recognized it as tear gas, meaning that this was either a bad joke or it wasn’t a joke at all and either way, it [was] time to run.”

Townson recounted on his blog, www.sinisterdreams.wordpress.com, that tear gas has a distinctive smell.

“Having served in the United States Navy very directly saved both of our lives that night,” he wrote.

Townson said one whiff told him they were in trouble in the theater.

“If I didn’t know what it was exactly when it hit our feet, I’m not sure what would’ve happened. I like to think that I would’ve gotten up and ran pretty quick any ways, but it might not have been quick enough to save my life.”

Richards said she just wants to “hug” the other survivors of the shooting.

“I thank our instincts, Navy training, and the universe itself,” she wrote of her own survival. “However, the physical stuff is all just one part of the pain we have endured, and most likely will endure.”

Richards is accepting donations toward her medical bills at http://www.carlirotten.net/donate/ or at http://www.indiegogo.com/careforcarli?c=home.

Jim Carney can be reached at 330-996-3576 or at jcarney@thebeaconjournal.com.