Felecia Sanders doesn’t remember sliding under the round table in the fellowship hall in the basement of Emanuel AME Church. Nor does she remember pulling her 11-year-old granddaughter down with her.
“It was the hand of God that put me under the table,” she later told friends.
But Sanders remembers the blood on the floor, the whispers to her granddaughter to “be still.” She remembers watching her son, Tywanza, 26, bloodied and clinging to life, crawling toward his dying great “auntie,” Susie Jackson, 87. And she remembers Tywanza reaching out, his last act in this world, to stroke Jackson’s soft, gray hair.
Sanders was one of only three people to live through the massacre at the historic church in Charleston last Wednesday, along with her granddaughter and Polly Sheppard, 70, a church trustee. This week, as the trio prepared to bury nine friends and loved ones – including the church pastor – friends say they are struggling with both immeasurable grief and humility over their improbable survival.
Neither Sanders nor Sheppard has spoken directly to reporters since the shootings, one of the worst acts of violence at a place of worship in more than two decades. But friends related their accounts of the attack, as well as their efforts to heal.
Remarkably, Sheppard sounded much like her usual self when fellow congregant Liz Alston spoke with her by phone in recent days.
“I was surprised,” Alston said. “I expected her to be more shaken. But she did sound like herself. She said, ‘I’m doing okay.’ ”
At Sheppard’s home, a woman who answered the phone said Sheppard had left town for Georgia and wasn’t ready to talk about the attack.
“She is traumatized with all that stuff that went on in there,” said Harold Washington, a former trustee at Emanuel who saw Sheppard at a church meeting hours before the shootings. “She went through something that night. Think about it — all that killing went on. It is traumatic.”
Across the bridge at Sanders’s home on James Island, cars packed the long, winding driveway inlaid with red bricks shaped into a large “S.” Visitors came and went, swinging open the door of the two-story brown house. Much of Sanders’s family had arrived to help prepare for Tywanza’s funeral.
Inside, adults spoke in hushed tones, hugging and comforting one another. A baby cried, piercing the grief. Older children — louder, playful — laughed, unable to sit still. Then Sanders’s family gathered on the porch to take a family photo with Sanders at the center of a crowd of loved ones. Above their heads hung a banner: “Tywanza Forever in Our Hearts.”
As Sanders leaned on her husband, her 11-year-old granddaughter stood nearby, the two forever bonded by having walked out of the basement of Emanuel AME Church alive.
It was not clear why Sanders’s granddaughter accompanied her to Bible study that night. But when the class ended in Emanuel’s basement fellowship hall, Sanders heard a loud bang.
At first, she thought it was noise from construction on the new church elevator the pastor was building to help elderly members reach the sanctuary. Perhaps a transformer blew.
Then she saw the gun.
The weapon was in the hand of a white stranger whom Sanders and her fellow parishioners had welcomed barely an hour earlier and with whom they had read verses from the Book of Mark. Dressed in a long-sleeved gray shirt with a fanny pack hanging from his waist, the man rose from a white folding chair and announced: “I’m here to kill black people.”
The alleged shooter, Dylann Roof, 21, an avowed white supremacist, unleashed a torrent of bullets, beginning with a point-blank shot that killed the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, 41. Then the shooter stopped to reload.
Sanders’s son, Tywanza, pleaded with the man. “No, you don’t really have to do this,” he said. “You really don’t have to do this.”
The man responded with another precision shot.
“Mom, I’ve been shot in the head,” Tywanza called. “Why is he doing this?”
The mother could not answer her dying son, who lay among nine people fatally shot that night. In addition to Tywanza Sanders and Pinckney, the man killed the Rev. Daniel Simmons, 74, who tried to save the pastor; the spirited Myra Thompson, 59, who had just renewed her pastoral license hours earlier; the Rev. Sharonda Coleman Singleton, 45; DePayne Middleton Doctor, 49; Cynthia Graham Hurd, 54; and Ethel Lance, 70.
Jackson was last, the woman with the good heart, who sang in the choir and baked her famous butter pound cakes for church socials.
As her son lay dying, Sanders reached for his cellphone to call for help, but the phone had been shattered by bullets.
She held her breath as the shooter moved past her toward Sheppard, who was on her knees praying.
“Have I shot you?” the man asked, Sheppard later told friends.
“No,” she said.
“Have I tried to shoot you?” he persisted.
“No,” she said.
“I’m going to let you live so you can tell what happened,” the shooter said. Then he slipped out of the church and drove away.
Pinckney’s wife, who avoided the slaughter by barricading herself and a daughter in the pastor’s office, called 911.
Police units arrived minutes later.
And when Sanders emerged from the fellowship hall, she was covered in the blood of her pastor, her friends and her son, a man she called her “hero.”