DENVER -- Gov. John Hickenlooper was celebrating a friend's birthday in Colorado Springs Thursday night and he was still there early Friday morning when his phone rang with news of the deadly shooting rampage inside an Aurora movie theater.
"My first reaction is as a parent and I know how I felt, just how my guts constricted," Hickenlooper said Monday in an exclusive interview with FOX31 Denver at the Capitol.
For the last three days, Hickenlooper has been meeting with law enforcement, escorting the president, counseling victims' families and survivors at the University of Colorado Hospital, addressing thousands at Sunday's candlelight vigil, juggling myriad interviews with the national media and, almost as an afterthought, thinking about his own emotions.
"In a funny way, I'm the chief mourner for the state," Hickenlooper said. "And hearing the families' stories, from the lowest of the low to -- it was almost as if the people that died were the brightest and best, the most vibrant and the most alive; you just heard about them and they were just unusually remarkable people."
On Sunday, Hickenlooper joined President Barack Obama, Senators Mark Udall and Michael Bennet and Rep. Ed Perlmutter at University of Colorado Hospital, each meeting separately with each of the victims' loved ones and relatives, as well as with some of those recovering from gunshot wounds in the hospital.
"We met with groups, the immediate family, the parents, the wife, the immediate friends of each of the deceased victims. That was wrenching," Hickenlooper said. "And yet they took it differently. Some people were devastated in a sense that they felt like they couldn't even function. Some people were absorbing it and saying, I'm going to live my life, I'm going to find joy in my life just out of respect for how much I loved my kid.
"What you also hear from survivors, the sort of determination to get on with their lives. They weren't going to let this ruin their lives, they were going to go back to the movies," Hickenlooper said. "They weren't going to let this terrorist -- and it really was a terrorist act -- they weren't going to let him win."
Hickenlooper also praised Aurora Police Chief Dan Oates as "one of the heroes of this story", as well as police officers who responded to the Century 16 cinemas Friday morning and drove victims to nearby hospitals in their own patrol cars.
He also praised President Obama for spending so much time listening to the victims' families and expressing such genuine support on behalf of the country.
"He's an unusual person in many ways, but his ability to connect emotionally is something I don't think I've ever experienced first-hand like that," Hickenlooper said.
Later at a prayer vigil in Aurora attended by thousands, Hickenlooper referred to the suspected gunman, James Holmes, as "Suspect A", vowing to follow the wishes of many families who asked that the focus remain on their loved ones, not the young man who killed them.
"How do you understand evil at that level? You go into rage, but in a way, that validates [Holmes]," Hickenlooper said. "My brain, my emotions go to the rage and that's what he wanted. And that's why -- I'm never going to say his name again. He's 'Suspect A', with a small 'a'. I don't want to even give him the benefit of that small bit of respect."
On Monday, Hickenlooper reiterated what he told the national media on Sunday when asked about the renewed debate over the nation's gun laws in the wake of the Aurora shooting.
"I don't think stricter laws would have made a difference. He would have found a way to wreak havoc," Hickenlooper said.
"I think the discussions of do we need stricter laws should probably wait until the families have grieved, and at least until we bury the people who we lost."