One year later: Live 5 News anchors remember night of Charleston church shooting

One year later: Live 5 News anchors remember night of Charleston church shooting
Aisha Tyler (Source: WCSC)
Aisha Tyler (Source: WCSC)
Raphael James (Source: WCSC)
Raphael James (Source: WCSC)

CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - No one was prepared for what happened the night of June 17, 2015.

A part of Charleston was taken when nine black churchgoers were shot and killed while worshiping at Mother Emanuel AME Church, a holy place with history embedded in the nation's fabric.

Seasoned Live 5 News anchors Raphael James and Aisha Tyler had just returned from their dinner breaks and were preparing for their next broadcast when the newsroom's police scanners squawked louder than normal.

In minutes, the scanners went out of control.

"Shooting at Mother downtown Charleston... on Calhoun Street," Tyler recalls Charleston County dispatchers saying.

At first, some in the newsroom thought it was a drill. They quickly found out what they were hearing would change their lives forever.

James rushed to the scene, foregoing the anchor desk to cover the story in person with the little information he had — a shooting at an iconic, historically black church.

"When I got there, I saw someone I had just met a few weeks ago on jury duty, and he told me 'my aunt Susie was in that church.'" At the time, neither of them knew exactly what happened.

James had a connection to the church. He was invited there for speaker engagements, and thought the people were warm and friendly. He and the church's pastor, state senator Clementa Pinckney, had plans to one day get a cup of coffee together.

James says he wasn't emotional at first.

"I had a crutch... I didn't know who's dead…I didn't know that people I knew had passed away," he said. "Until it's official, until everything's black and white, I'm just going to operate on the assumption that everybody I know is okay."

Susie Jackson and Clementa Pinckney were later confirmed to be among the nine victims shot and killed that night. Jackson's nephew Tywanza Sanders, Cynthia Graham Hurd, Ethel Lee Lance, Rev. Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Rev. Daniel Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton and Myra Thompson were also confirmed dead. The youngest parishioner was 26, and the oldest was 87.

Three other people were in the church at the time. They survived.

Officials said they were looking for a suspect — a white, clean-shaven young man wearing a gray sweatshirt. Later identified as Dylann Roof, the suspect was found during a traffic stop in Shelby, North Carolina.

The then 21-year-old from Columbia later said he opened fire on the group after joining them during bible study, with the goal of starting a race war, according to investigators.

"I was angry," Tyler said. "I'm still angry, but I've gotten better over time through God, through praying…I felt like he ripped a part of us when what happened, happened.

Hate didn't win.

Mourners of all races cried and left flowers on the steps and sidewalk in front of one of the country's oldest black churches. A sea of people stretched across the Ravenel Bridge to Mount Pleasant from Charleston, joining hands in a symbol of unity.

James says when he took his family to the church days later, a white woman took hold of his children, and with tears in her eyes said "I'm so sorry, don't think that we're all this way." Moved, James' family hugged and spoke with her for a while.

"There was a lot of healing going on there. A lot of souls being poured out," James recalled. "A lot of mourning. A lot of dealing with that grief." James said it was therapeutic and necessary.

"Seeing how our community came together, seeing how people loved one another, and are continuing to do that to this day…has helped me through the healing process. It's helped my family through the healing process. It's helped my Charleston heal. What was meant to tear us apart, has brought us all together."

Days later, thousands listened as President Obama sang "Amazing Grace" in a eulogy for Pinckney.

Thousands gathered at the College of Charleston's TD arena again Friday morning, one year after the tragedy, to remember the Emanuel nine and honor the night's survivors, as well as current Mother Emanuel church members.

Copyright 2016 WCSC. All Rights Reserved.