COLUMBIA, SC (WCSC) - You can still see the sadness in Governor Nikki Haley's eyes when she talks about the Emanuel AME Church shooting.
As the leader of the Palmetto State, Haley received the gruesome details of the massacre very early on, and she knew it would devastate her people.
But as she looks back on that night and the days that followed, she says the people of her state taught the world how to turn tragedy into triumph.
"It's not a day I don't think about it," Haley says. "It's not a day I don't think about the 12 people that were in that bible study."
Haley says June 17, 2015 is forever etched in her memory. It started with a phone call that Wednesday night, from her chief of staff.
"As soon as the chief of staff told me that it was Sen. Pinckney's church, I immediately called Sen. Pinckney and I left him a message and said I heard about what happened let me know what we need to do, I'm sending extra SLED down, I will be there in any way that you need me to be for the families. I didn't know that he wouldn't get the call," Haley says.
The next day at a news conference, emotional and visibly shaken, Haley addressed the people of South Carolina and the world about the unthinkable tragedy.
"The reason that news conference was so tough because I knew more than the public knew at that time and I knew how bad it was, and I knew what had happened in that room," she says. "I knew this was going to bring people to their knees, I knew that they were going to hurt, it was more than anybody could stomach."
Haley says her immediate focus was on helping the loved ones of the victims, and the survivors to heal. She started by attending the funerals.
"There was no way I was going to miss a funeral, there was no way, I had to be at every funeral," she says. "And everyday I came back with a program that had their face on it and I introduced that person to my kids that day and told them who I had met and these were some amazing people and I will keep talking about the 12 people that were in that room. Because the ability they had, to have the courage and acceptance to bring in someone that didn't look like them or act like them and pray with him for an hour is something that will go down in history as one of the most amazing moments in South Carolina."
Although she never had much contact with him when she served in the House of Representatives, Haley has nothing but kind memories of Sen. Clementa Pinckney, the pastor of Mother Emanuel.
"You know the thing about Sen. Pinckney was he was just this gentle giant," she recalls. "Everybody says that but he was very tall, and when he opened his mouth it surprised you at how deep his voice was, and how loud his voice was. But he never used that voice to divide people, he never used that voice in a disrespectful way. Every encounter that I had with him whether in his district or here in the State House was one of great respect."
She keeps in touch with the two women who witnessed every shot that night, who heard those around them taking their last breaths as they were dying. Her heart especially goes out to Felicia Sanders.
"I communicate on a monthly basis with Felicia Sanders because if you look at her loss, not only did she lose her 87-year-old Aunt Susie, she lost her son, as she laid on her granddaughter and told her to pretend she was dead," she says. "Living with that I stay in touch with her and pray with her."
Haley says in the midst of the tragedy, she was moved to take action. She said after many sleepless nights, she talked with her husband and made the decision to ask a select group of lawmakers to support her, in removing the Confederate Flag. Dylann Roof proudly embraced the flag, and the governor was concerned that the people of her state could not heal and move forward, with the flag waving on State House grounds.
"And what I knew is that I could never have any kids drive past the State House and look at that flag and think of those 12 people in that room, because that's what that flag meant now," she says. "And so we wanted to be very respectful of those pro-Confederates, then we also wanted to be very respectful of every child that was ever gonna come on the State House grounds. What we knew was now the flag was not only a divisive symbol, but one of 12 lives that are forever changed. Nine we lost and three have to live with that. And so that needed to be removed. This State House grounds belong to all people and everybody needed to feel welcome."
As for Roof, Haley still wants to see him put to death for the lives taken on June 17 inside Mother Emanuel. But she doesn't allow the criminal case against him or his future, to monopolize her thoughts.
"I don't think about him," she says. "I don't think about him; everyday I think about the families and everyday I think about the survivors. I'm not gonna give a second of my thought to him."
When Haley looks back on that day, she feels nothing but pride. Proud of South Carolina and proud of the people in it.
"South Carolina was tested last year," she says. "And they didn't have riots they had vigils, they didn't have any sort of protests they had hugs. And we saw it happen across the state. And what the country and the world saw were very passionate good people that just wanted to help bring this back up. I mean we had fallen to our knees and it was about getting everyone to stand up again, and lifting up those families and lifting up those survivors. And getting them through it and getting all of us through it and I think that we saw the goodness of the people of South Carolina in a way that we've never seen before. Based on June 17 last year, we turned a year of tragedy into a year of faith. And if we can do that, there's nothing that South Carolina can't do."