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The movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, where 12 people were killed in a mass shooting last summer, reopens this evening. It's a special event for victims' families and first responders.
But Colorado Public Radio's Ben Markus reports that some of those families won't be going because they say the decision to reopen is insensitive.
BEN MARKUS, BYLINE: Jessica Watts lives just a few miles from the theater where her cousin Jonathan Blunk and 11 others were killed and dozens more wounded.
JESSICA WATTS: Basically, anytime I want to go shopping, yes, I have to see that theater. I drive by it numerous times a week, and it's one of those very, you know, sad, hard realizations that there's 12 people that are no longer here.
MARKUS: Watts says Cinemark Corporation should move the theater elsewhere and turn the site into a memorial. What's worse, she says, is the way Cinemark has handled the victims' families: Refusing to communicate or meet with them since the shooting, until they got an invitation to tonight's reopening.
WATTS: Two days after Christmas, we receive this invitation, and it was extremely disheartening because we had just gone through the holidays without our loved ones for the very first time. You know, we had an empty place at the dinner table, and it was very, very hard for each of the families and then just to get this invitation like it's no big deal.
MARKUS: She and other family members of victims sent an open letter to Cinemark accusing the company of putting profits ahead of their anguish. Several families are suing Cinemark, alleging that security at the theater was lax the night of the shooting. Cinemark declined to comment for this story. Back in August, the company asked Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan to poll residents to gauge how they feel about reopening the theater.
MAYOR STEVE HOGAN: And they overwhelmingly said yes. We need this. The community needs this. We need to move forward.
MARKUS: About 2,000 invites went out for tonight's reopening event. Cinemark wouldn't say what movie it's showing. Besides victims and their families, first responders and hospital workers are also expected, as is Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper and Mayor Steve Hogan.
HOGAN: I'm happy to be there. My personal opinion is I do not want the shooter to win, and I will be there.
MARKUS: In part, Hogan says, to honor the first responders and doctors who saved so many lives, doctors like Comilla Sasson who also got an invite. She was in the E.R. that night at the University of Colorado Hospital where 23 gunshot victims were taken.
DR. COMILLA SASSON: You know, I'm excited to think that maybe life is going back to normal for us here in Colorado. I, myself, personally am not quite ready yet to be in a theater. Since July, I haven't actually gone to the theater yet and definitely not quite ready to go to the theater.
MARKUS: Since the July 20th shootings, the Aurora theater has undergone a facelift. Outside, the bright colors and neon lights have been replaced with a more muted dark green. Inside, the infamous theater nine has reportedly been converted into a supersized screen called XD or extreme digital. Strong feelings about the theater reopening aren't exclusive to the victims' families and first responders.
A few steps away at the nearby shopping mall, Maurice Sharp takes a look at the theater and says there's no way he'd step foot in there.
MAURICE SHARP: Just because who wants to go to a movie theater where people got shot and died, you know what I mean? They're remodeling for a reason.
MARKUS: But Aurora resident Angelica McDonald says for many others, the reopening will be therapeutic.
ANGELICA MCDONALD: I think it's good for our community to just show that we're strong, and we're coming back.
MARKUS: The theater officially opens to the public Friday with all movies free of charge through the weekend. For NPR News, I'm Ben Markus in Denver.
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