Charleston church shooting survivors share memories, journey to forgiveness

Updated: Feb. 4, 2016 at 11:57 PM EST
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Tywanza Sanders (Photo source: Facebook)
Tywanza Sanders (Photo source: Facebook)
Susie Jackson (Photo Source: @MichaelSkolnik)
Susie Jackson (Photo Source: @MichaelSkolnik)

CHARLESTON, SC (WIS) - After 232 days, Felecia Sanders says it still feels like yesterday.

"I go through June 17th all day, all night," she says. "I think about what I could've done differently, what could we have said differently if anything."

It was on that night at Mother Emanuel AME Church that Sanders, her 11-year-old granddaughter and Polly Sheppard witnessed nine murders.

"Seventy-seven shots. It actually sounded like a transformer blew," Sanders said.

"But then she yelled and that's when I took cover," Sheppard says. "I kept praying under the table, the Lord kept me calm."

"After I heard the shots, I thought he would've shot and run out, I didn't know it would've kept on going," Sanders says.

Behind the trigger authorities say was 21-year-old Dylann Roof. Prosecutors say Roof, motivated by hate and racism, was on a mission to start a race war.

"We were so nice to him, we were so nice to him," Sanders says. "I don't know what I was expecting, I was just waiting on my turn."

On that night, nine parishioners of Mother Emanuel lost their lives. Among the dead were two of Sander's relatives. She watched her son, 26-year-old Tywanza Sanders, die while protecting her 85-year-old aunt, Susie Jackson.

"He told Dylann Roof you don't have to do this, you don't have to do this, why are you doing this?" Sanders says.

"He took the attention off of us," Sheppard says. "The attention was in on him, so that's how he saved us."

"I never thought that in my wildest nightmare that I would lose my child, my friends, at Bible study," Sanders says. "That's the part that I can't get past."

Two days after the shooting, Roof appeared in court for a bond hearing.

It was there Sanders was able to confront the man who changed her life forever.

"Tywanza was my hero, but as we say in the bible study. We enjoyed you, but may God have mercy on you," she told him.

And it was that same mercy that allowed Sanders and Sheppard to forgive the confessed shooter.

"Forgiveness is a relief," Sanders says. "Dylann Roof doesn't care if I forgive him or not, forgiveness is for me it's not for him. If Dylann Roof just would've take time to walk through the room and just hail everybody that would've never happened."

"I forgave him also," Sheppard says. "I believe God will forgive him too. I believe in repentance I believe God will forgive him too."

The shooting at Mother Emanuel led to the removal of the Confederate Flag from the State House, a call for more gun control laws and conversations on race relations. Sanders and Sheppard say they are thankful their family and friends did not die in vain.

"He's trying to show us something, some of us woke up and some of us are still asleep," Sheppard says.

"I always say there's a message in the madness," Sanders agrees.

The message of hope and strong faith is what the survivor's pray the nation gets out of this tragedy.

"We're beginning to talk now to each other as individuals, different people with different feelings," Sheppard says.

However, there's one question that Sheppard and Sanders say they deal with everyday.

"Why did you pick me, why did you leave me?" Sheppard says. "I keep wondering."

"We've been at death's door," Sanders says. "We've been at death's door."

Sheppard and Sanders say since the shooting everything is different: certain noises scare them and they now have to attend therapy.

We also talked about the third survivor in the church that night; Sanders says her 11-year-old granddaughter is doing her best to get back to living a normal life.

They're now preparing to face Dylann Roof in court in July.

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