- Charleston, S.C. 06/20/2015 by Doug Pardue and Jennifer Berry Hawes (The Post and Courier)
Historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.
About 60 people wrap up Emanuel AME Church’s usual quarterly conference, a time to welcome the district’s presiding elder and tackle routine business matters.
It’s late and everyone’s hungry.
The Rev. Daniel Simmons, a 74-year-old retired minister, suggests postponing a regularly scheduled Bible study set to follow.
After a 90-minute meeting, the clock ticks toward 7:30 p.m. Stomachs grumble.
“Let’s do a little of it,” Myra Thompson suggests.
The 59-year-old, whose ministry license was just renewed, is eager to lead the Bible study.
The Rev. DePayne Middleton Doctor agrees. Only minutes have passed since the district’s presiding elder officially welcomed the 49-year-old into the ranks of licensed African Methodist Episcopal ministers.
Most members head out into the humid night.
But 12 remain to worship.
They are a diverse lot of the faithful — young and old, a librarian, an 87-year-old family matriarch, a speech therapist, a custodian, a widow, a retired minister, a new college graduate. Yet they are connected deeply by bonds of family, friendship and faith.
Before the Bible study begins, Cynthia Hurd hurries to her car to grab a display of old photos to give Willi Glee, a fellow member who is crafting a church display. She returns and hands it to him.
Then she decides to stay. A librarian, the 54-year-old often works evenings and cannot join in.
Hurd sits down with others in the church’s lower level, beneath a historic sanctuary that has welcomed the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. They gather in a large room surrounded with smaller meeting spaces and offices, including the Rev. Clementa Pinckney’s. Lime-green and white papers are stacked on the tables.
People talk and visit and sit in white fold-out chairs at round tables with white tablecloths set out across the room. The space is often used for church dinners and social functions.
The Rev. Pinckney, Simmons, Thompson, Doctor and Hurd join Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Ethel Lance, Polly Sheppard, Susie Jackson, Tywanza Sanders, his mother Felicia Sanders and her little granddaughter.
In an hour, tragedy will bond them forever.
The group launches into an opening hymn. Glee puts the bag of items in the treasurer’s office and heads out. About 40 others have left the meeting as well, leaving cars dotting the church’s parking lot.
One spot by the door sits empty.
It almost didn’t happen
As he wheels his dark 2000 Hyundai Elantra into the church’s parking lot, Dylann Storm Roof has no way of knowing that the building might well have been empty had members canceled the Bible study.
His only hint is the handful of cars scattered about the large lot as the sky glows from the setting evening sun.
At 8:16 p.m., Roof points his car into a space reserved for handicapped access and parks as close as he can to the church’s street-level meeting and office area. He wears a long-sleeved grey shirt and dark pants, even though temperatures soar into the 90s.
A half-minute later, he reaches for a handle to an elegant wooden side door, which leads to the Bible study room. It is left unlocked to welcome members and strangers alike.
He steps into the Bible study session and its dozen attendees, including much of the church’s clergy.
A 21-year-old white man, he is slight of frame and wears his hair in a bowl cut. He stands out. But to some gathered, he simply looks clean-cut and seems decent, almost shy.
Besides, in the AME Church, all people are welcomed with love, embraced by its members.
Saying little else, Roof asks who the minister is. When told that Pinckney, 41, is the church’s head pastor, Roof sits near him at a round table.
The group invites the guest to join their study of Mark 4: verses 16 to 20. “Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away.”
The killing begins
About 9 p.m., the Bible study concludes. As the group prepares to share a concluding prayer, Roof suddenly stands, pulls out a .45-caliber semi-automatic pistol and says he has come to kill black people.
He shoots the Rev. Pinckney first, at near point-blank range. Simmons tries to protect the pastor, a father of two young children, but Roof shoots him multiple times, too.
As Roof unloads his gun into the remaining people who had welcomed him, they fall from wounds or to avoid being shot, first Coleman-Singleton, a 45-year-old church pastor and track coach at Goose Creek High School, then Thompson and on and on.
Somehow, Felicia Sanders remains composed enough to pull her 5-year-old granddaughter down with her and whispers: play dead. The two lie on the cold floor covered in the spilled, warm blood of their friends and family.
Sanders feels the heat of each gun blast, hears the clank of casings echoing onto the hard tile and struggles to hold utterly still, even as Roof stops to reload.
Her son, 26-year-old Tywanza Sanders, tries to take advantage of the halt in gunfire to calm Roof and talk him out of more bloodshed.
But Roof replies that he’s there to do a job — and he must finish it. He shoots Sanders, then the rest, including Susie Jackson, a beloved aunt who Sanders couldn’t save with his final, most desperate words. At 87, she is the oldest worshipper there.
All of the dead and dying suffer multiple gunshot wounds.
As Roof starts out of the building, he passes Polly Sheppard, who is on her knees praying and has somehow avoided his rampage so far.
He asks her if she’s shot. She says no.
“I am going to let you live so you can tell the story of what happened,” Roof says, telling her he plans to kill himself.
With Felicia Sanders and her granddaughter still pretending to be dead, with Sheppard still alive, Roof returns to the church door, looks both ways as he opens it and climbs into his car and leaves.
It’s about 9:15, one hour after he arrived.
Two others also survive, unseen by Roof, locked in the Rev. Pinckney’s office: the pastor’s wife, Jennifer Pinckney, and one of their young daughters.
Shock and the aftermath
After police arrive, the survivors are sent to the Embassy Suites Hotel across Meeting Street, some sobbing, some far too stunned to react. Soon 200 to 300 family, friends and clergy gather.
Sheppard scrolls through the contacts on Ethel Lance’s cellphone — picked up after the shootings — until she sees one she recognizes. It is Willi Glee. At 74, he’s long served in the church on its history and archives committee.
“He killed everybody,” she says. “They’re all dead.”