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Daily Pilot

Commentary: I was at the movies when shots rang out

By Bradley Morrison

12:02 PM PST, December 17, 2012

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I wasn't planning on seeing a movie that day. My job was to shuttle my 13-year-old to and from a birthday party. The birthday girl was treating her friends and a few parents to see "The Hobbit." My 10-year-old, who is a tad young for an intense movie like "The Hobbit," wanted to come along for the ride.

Pulling into the jammed parking structure at Fashion Island in Newport Beach, we fortuitously spotted the birthday girl and her parents. They invited my 10-year-old to join them, and, after a quick call to my wife, I agreed.

"One thing, though," one of the parents asked. "Can you come to the ticket office to make sure she can get a seat?"

"Certainly, let me park first," I replied.

I parked and joined them in the movie theater lobby at the Edwards Island Cinema, in the heart of Fashion Island. Three adults and eight children walked into the lobby where we were informed that the afternoon showing of "The Hobbit" was for those 21 and older. No children were allowed because they were serving alcohol. Seriously?

After many minutes of arguing and negotiating, theater management gave our party 14 complimentary tickets to the showing at their sister theater across the street at Big Newport. Now we had the pleasure to transport everyone to the other side of the mall and across the street. I volunteered to shuttle a couple kids, and in 10 minutes we were walking the kids into the lobby of another theater.

"Brad, we have two extra tickets now, why don't you join us?"

"Why not?"

So I walked into the darkened theater with my popcorn, 3-D glasses and 32-ounce soda.

Not surprisingly, about 90 minutes into the movie I needed to use the restroom. As I walked back through the lobby, it was a different scene than I expected. Patrons were at the window looking, gesturing and discussing something happening outside.

The theater has a sprawling lobby and valet circle, which sits right off Newport Center drive about 20 feet elevated to the surrounding street, with a perfect view of the mall parking lot right across Newport Center Drive.

"I heard shots ... he's over there ... do you see the smoke ... what's going on?"

I was not fearful exactly, and not really surprised, just curious. At the same time, within me there was a growing feeling of dread that something dangerous is happening outside, and my mind was racing about the kids (my kids) in the theater. Should I just grab them and leave through the rear exits? Should I wait here at the door to see what happens? I needed more information.

I walked to the windows and viewed the scene. I was in the larger of two theater complexes. The complex has large center doors and doors to the left and right sides. The theater staff was busy. The manager was rushing around locking doors while other staff were ushering people standing in line into the lobby.

"Can we leave?" someone asked.

"No," the manager said authoritatively. "You need to stay here; there's been a shooting."

Cars pulled up to the valet with drivers who seemed puzzled by the scene inside the lobby. Drivers and passengers craned to look into the lobby where 20 or so people stood with worried faces.

Eventually, they drove away; maybe they got the hint. Every time someone showed up at the outside ticket office, the manager ran to the side door, unlocked it and ushered them into the theater. At the same time, one of the theater staff was on the phone, presumably speaking with a 911 operator, trying to explain where they were.

"There are gunshots in the parking lot across from us ... um Fashion Island, I guess..."

The feeling of dread grew while we stood there confused, with a quarter-inch plate of glass the only thing separating us from the scene outside.

I decided I needed to inform the other parents. I walked back in the theater, where the movie was still playing. Everyone was sitting quietly in their seats with their 3-D glasses on, totally oblivious to the potential danger outside. I walked into the row behind our party and whispered into Joe's ear, "There's been gunshots outside and they've locked us in the theater."

Joe jumped up and in a few seconds we were both back in the lobby.

The population of spectators had grown. A 6- to 7-foot line of patrons requesting refunds queued up at the lobby desk.

I asked myself, "A potential psycho shooting his gun right outside the door, there are a thousand children in this theater, and you're worried about your 10 bucks?" Joe and I scanned the scene and after what seemed like an eternity, we finally saw the first police activity, a motorcycle cop standing high on his bike, surveying the parking lot scene.

As more police arrived, Joe and I began taking a mental inventory of whose parents we need to contact. We begin sending texts and checking Twitter. I saw a police helicopter overhead, ambulances, fire trucks and the crime scene wagon drove by.

The theater manager announced that someone had shot his gun in the air, that no one was hurt and that the suspect was in custody. There was nothing else for us to do but go back and finish the movie. Joe and I walked in and out of the theater several times over the next 30 minutes, but finally I settled down, sat back in my seat, put on my 3-D glasses and watched the rest of "The Hobbit."

It's a movie about dwarfs, orcs and wizards. I'm told it's excellent.

BRADLEY MORRISON lives in Newport Beach.