Charleston church shooting survivor describes the moment suspected gunman Dylann Roof began firing

The gunman who killed nine Charleston, S.C., churchgoers in June waited for a Bible study group to begin praying before pulling his pistol and unleashing a torrent of bullets.

“He caught us with our eyes closed,” Felicia Sanders, one of three people who survived the massacre, told NBC News on Wednesday. “I never told nobody this.”

Police say Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old avowed white supremacist, was bent on murdering black people when he went to the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston the evening of June 17. Autopsies on the victims revealed that each one was shot several times.

“I would like to ask him why. I really want to ask him why he did it,” Sanders said during the tearful interview with NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt. “If we were so nice to you, why did you do it?”

A memorial outside Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C.. Click image to see more photos. (AP Photo/Bruce Smith)
A memorial outside Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C.. Click image to see more photos. (AP Photo/Bruce Smith)

Sanders said the hail of gunfire “sounded like a transformer blew.” The melee killed church pastor Clementa Pinckney, 41; Daniel Simmons, 74; Susie Jackson, 87; Cynthia Graham Hurd, 54; Ethel Lance, 70; Myra Thompson, 59; Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45; DePayne Middleton Doctor, 49; and Sanders’ 26-year-old son, Tywanza.

“I remember my son saying, ‘Mama, he shot me in the head,’” Sanders said Wednesday.

Sanders attended the Wednesday night class with Tywanza, her 11-year-old granddaughter and Jackson. She told her granddaughter to play dead as she tried to console her son.

“My granddaughter was hollering, saying that she was so afraid,” Sanders said. “I was trying to keep everybody close to me as calm as I could.”

In his final moments, Tywanza attempted to crawl across the room to assist Jackson, his great-aunt.

“What I think of Tywanza, those last moments — my hero. My hero,” Sanders told NBC. “He took a lot of bullets.”

State prosecutors announced last week that they will seek the death penalty against the gunman, who was captured the next day. He also faces federal hate-crime charges, though federal authorities haven’t announced what penalty they’ll seek.

Sanders says she has forgiven Roof, but plans to attend all of his court hearings.

“I want Dylann to see my face,” she said. “I want Dylann to hear Tywanza’s voice all the days of his life. He didn't have to do it. He didn't have to do it. He didn't have to do it.”

Polly Sheppard, another survivor, also said she holds “no malice” against the accused killer.

“I’m going to try to get better from this,” Sheppard told NBC. “I have to forgive him.”

Sheppard, 70, said she doesn’t want Roof to be executed.

“I don’t believe in the death penalty,” she said. “I believe he should have to think about this the rest of his life. He’s got a long time, if he’s healthy. I believe in repentance.”

Jason Sickles is a national reporter for Yahoo News. Follow him on Twitter (@jasonsickles).