‘Forgotten’ survivors search for meaning 2 women face tough road after Emanuel tragedy shatters their lives

Polly Sheppard and Felicia Sanders, the only adult survivors of the Emanuel AME massacre, greet Brenda Nelson, who left the church for the night shortly before the fateful Bible study began.

The blood splattered on her legs — that of her son, an elderly aunt, her pastors, nine people she loved — had dried. She still wore the same clothes, a black skirt and a black-and-white blouse, crusty now.

An endless night before, Felicia Sanders had left her blood-soaked shoes with the dead in the fellowship hall of her beloved lifelong church, Emanuel AME.

Barefoot as the sun rose, she trudged up the steps to her home, the one where 26-year-old Tywanza Sanders’ bedroom waited silently, his recent college acceptance letter tacked onto a bulletin board beside his poetry. It was after 6 a.m., and she hadn’t slept. She hadn’t eaten, not since going to Emanuel AME’s elevator committee meeting the evening before, then its quarterly conference and then its weekly Wednesday Bible study. There, 12 people met in God’s midst. Nine of them died, 77 bullets in their midst.

Felicia had answered questions all night from myriad authorities determined to find the killer. Now her phone rang. Her doorbell rang. Reporters, friends, family, strangers, an endless blare through the jangle of her muddled thoughts. Finally, in a delirious rage, she called an old friend, attorney Andy Savage.

“Andy, it’s too much!” she cried into the phone.

“I’ll be there.”

She hung up, walked upstairs and looked down at herself, at the blood of her youngest child crusted on her body.

“I didn’t want to take the clothes off,” she recalled, “because the clothes were the connection.”

The connection to Tywanza, to her aunt Susie Jackson, to them all.

She stepped into the shower. Watching her son’s blood swirl into the water and down the drain, Felicia sobbed. She kept the clothes, never washing them.

It was a larger group than normal that night: 12.

Perhaps no number carries more biblical weight.

Christ called 12 men to follow him. Israel had 12 tribes.

It is considered a perfect biblical number.

On most Wednesday nights, about half that number came to Bible study. But the night a young white man joined them to study the Parable of the Sower, 12 had gathered.

They lived or died after making the most mundane of daily choices.

Two regulars left early. Two occasional-comers stayed.

Polly Sheppard was one. Although her husband taught Bible study for 25 years, she wasn’t a Wednesday regular anymore. She hadn’t planned to stay that night either.

“I have diabetes, I’m hungry, I’m going home,” the 70-year-old told a friend.

Yet, she didn’t. She stayed to support Myra Thompson, ordained just that night and leading Bible study for the first time. For the last time.

Felicia, a 57-year-old hairstylist, went every Wednesday.

Her son Tywanza came, too. He’d leave work at a North Charleston restaurant, catch a bus downtown and join in. Often he arrived after the group started, even toward the end sometimes.

On June 17, he arrived on time.

Normally the Rev. DePayne Middleton Doctor’s four children joined her, as well. But she was ordained at the quarterly conference and had come straight from work.

When a slim man with a bowl haircut walked in and sat down, her children were away, safe.

Felicia’s sister had just dropped off her 11-year-old granddaughter. The child sat down, now one of the 12.

The white man’s presence was unusual at the historic black church. But he seemed benign enough that, an hour in, when he fired the first shots, Polly thought it was a flash of electrical wiring gone awry in the old building.

“Miss Polly, he’s shooting at us!” Felicia screamed at her longtime friend.

Polly dove beneath a table.

Felicia grabbed her granddaughter and clutched the child’s face tightly against her chest, whispering: “Just play dead, play dead, play dead ...”

“Granny, I’m so scared.”

“Don’t say nothing.”

Tywanza, beside her, was wounded.

“Be quiet,” Felicia begged him. “Just lay, just lay, just lay.”

But Tywanza didn’t just lay.

When the gunman targeted his 87-year-old aunt, Tywanza tried to protect her.

“Why are you doing this?” he said.

“Y’all raping all our white women and taking over the nation,” the shooter replied.

“You don’t have to do this,” Tywanza implored. “We mean you no harm.”

His last words.

“I have to do this. I have to finish my mission,” the killer said.

With each gunshot, as Tywanza’s blood flowed onto her, one word streamed through Felicia’s mind as she held deathly still: Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus ...

The shooter stepped toward Polly and said, “I am going to let you live so you can tell the story of what happened.”

As he spoke, Felicia reached for a cellphone that had skidded within reach. Drenched in blood, it was too shot up to dial.

Polly watched the man try to fire more rounds — click, click — and then leave.

She heard sirens.

She heard a door close.

Then she scanned the bodies, the blood, the shell casings. Polly thought she was the only one alive. But she felt God in the room.

Then a voice. It was Felicia.

“Miss Polly, please help my son!”

“I was never more shocked,” Polly recalled. A retired nurse, she rushed over.

Police raced in too and ushered the living outside into the muggy darkness toward a nearby hotel. Felicia hurried out barefoot, still clutching her granddaughter’s face to her chest, shielding her.

Amid the shock came the police, the questions, surveillance images — and, mostly, hunting a killer at large.

The next morning, police arrested 21-year-old Dylann Roof at the North Carolina border, a Glock semiautomatic handgun in his backseat.

The following afternoon, Roof had a bond hearing. A nation would be watching.

Felicia and her husband, Tyrone, went. They planned to show no outrage at the racist killings, unlike what had happened in other cities where racial tensions erupted into violence and destruction.

“I didn’t want any riots here. I didn’t want anybody else’s parents to feel what I have felt,” said Felicia, a mother of four who lost her own mother young while growing up on Charleston’s East Side. “Why do I need to get up there and cause chaos and then other kids would get killed and the neighborhood would get hurt? Let the judicial system handle it.”

In court, Roof appeared on a TV screen wearing a striped jail uniform as he heard nine murder charges read to him. He stared blankly into the camera.

Victim Ethel Lance’s daughter, Nadine Collier, told the alleged killer: “I will never talk to her ever again, never be able to hold her again. I forgive you and have mercy on your soul. You hurt me, you hurt a lot of people, but I forgive you.”

Felicia planned not to speak. But as she sat there, as she looked at Roof’s image, she changed her mind. She spoke words carried in news outlets across the globe.

“Tywanza was my hero,” she said, voice quivering. “But as we say in Bible study, ‘We enjoyed you, but may God have mercy on your soul.’ ”

Polly’s distraught son begged her not to go. She watched the bond hearing on TV.

“I was amazed at the forgiveness,” she said. “With me, forgiveness is a process. I have to think about it. Sometimes I have to have a prodding from God to forgive people for small things. When it comes to something this magnificent, it would be a whole process for me.”

She’s forgiven now. “But it took me a while.”

Both of their houses quickly filled. At Felicia’s two-story home, every room, even the backyard, filled with people.

It was time to plan a funeral.

The church had lost five pastors, almost its entire ministry staff. And Felicia knew Mother Emanuel was not big enough to hold a joint funeral for Tywanza and Aunt Susie, at 87 the oldest killed.

Citadel Square Baptist offered its space but had a wedding scheduled. Felicia and Andy Savage looked around.

“Nobody else helped me,” Felicia recalled. “If I didn’t have Andy Savage, I would be lost.”

They went to Second Presbyterian, a stately white church behind Emanuel AME, and walked in the main doors.

“The minute I opened the door, the atmosphere was so right, so welcoming,” Felicia said. The Rev. Cress Darwin met her at the door.

“It just feels right,” Felicia told him. He offered the church and the help of its members.

“Our congregation is a very welcoming congregation,” Darwin later explained. “It infuses the space. A church isn’t holy for the architecture.”

On June 27, sheltered from drenching rain and winds, mourners packed the sanctuaries at both Emanuel AME and Second Presbyterian and flooded into overflow spaces. Gov. Nikki Haley, Charleston Mayor Joe Riley and the Rev. Jesse Jackson came.

Overwhelmed with grief, Felicia could hardly reach her seat.

A 105-year-old church member maneuvered her walker toward the grieving mother.

“That meant the world to me, and I’ll never forget it,” Felicia said. “She came to me in the midst of all that chaos.”

No survivors went when the church reopened the Sunday after the massacre.

None have returned to the Bible study.

Polly first stepped back inside for librarian Cynthia Hurd’s funeral. When she arrived, the sanctuary was packed.

“I was horrified I couldn’t get in,” she recalled.

So she walked downstairs and into the fellowship hall, putty covering the bullet holes in the walls. She saw boxes of donations addressed to the Emanuel Nine. It upset her, given there were 12.

“My mind was on the little girl. What about her?” she said about Felicia’s granddaughter. “She’s got a long way to go, so how could you forget her?”

Numb, she crossed the room and sat down in an office, listening to an audio feed.

Shortly after, she went to Sunday service for the first time.

“It’s a different atmosphere to have all these different people in there, all these dignitaries,” Polly said. “I just have to get used to it.”

Since the killings, Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. Sens. Tim Scott and Lindsey Graham, and Haley all have sat in Emanuel AME’s pews. The victims’ families have met President Barack Obama and the first lady, who talked with each before Obama delivered the Rev. Clementa Pinckney’s eulogy. So did Biden and his wife.

Biden, whose son died three weeks before the shootings, told Tyrone Sanders: “We have something in common. We both lost a son.”

Before he was gunned down that night, the Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr. wanted to welcome homeless folks into the church. Felicia suggested security.

“You don’t need security,” Simmons said.

Nobody much disagreed. Until now.

“I’m heartbroken,” Felicia said. “I felt so safe at Emanuel. That hurts the most. I always felt like as long as I’m there, I’m OK.”

Until now.

Next came the questions for God.

The Bible study’s passage that June 17 evening was a widely known one from Mark 4 that discusses sowing spiritual seeds — and how seeds wither without nourishment. It made Felicia think of the killer.

“I want to know why the seed was sitting there for an hour. I want to know why he admitted the next morning he almost didn’t do it because he thought we were nice. I needed somebody who knows. I didn’t go to theology school,” Felicia said. “I just want answers. That’s all I want.”

Her therapist asked if she had a minister to talk to.

But five of them had died with her son.

“Everything I believe in has been shaken,” Felicia said. “I know God has been in the midst. But you ask yourself all these questions. Is it something I did?”

When nobody from the church reached out to her, she said, she sought the Rev. Darwin at Second Presbyterian. What does God want her to do with her life, given she’s still among the living?

“Felicia,” he said, “you did what you’re supposed to do. You brought peace to the nation.”

She and Polly, both lifelong Christians, are studying numbers now, too — 12, nine, three.

They’re studying a date, too.

On June 17, nine people died at Emanuel AME.

On June 17, 1991, an explosion at the Albright & Wilson chemical plant where Tyrone worked killed nine people. He was supposed to be at work that day.

It also is a day before the anniversary of nine Charleston firefighters’ deaths.

And almost to the day 193 years before the Emanuel AME killings, Denmark Vesey plotted a failed slave rebellion from the very church where so much blood spilled.

Polly is thankful she has a scholar at home. Her husband taught Sunday school for decades.

“Somebody asked, ‘Where was God when these nine got killed?’ ” Polly recalled. “I said that he was right where he was when Jesus got killed. Right there with us. You wonder why, but there’s always a reason.”

Still, when a local minister called inviting her to talk, she made an appointment.

“It was very good because I hadn’t had any spiritual guidance” after the shooting, Polly said. “It was so nice.”

Now she asks God to reveal his plan for the rest of her life.

“There’s work for us to do that’s left,” she said. “It’s something big.”

Tywanza’s birthday was July 23. He would have been 27.

The next month, Felicia turned 58 on the birthday she shares with Tyrone.

“It was the saddest birthday we’ve ever had in our lives,” Felicia said.

So she focuses on keeping her granddaughter, who lives with her, active and safe now that school has begun.

“I’m trying to do the best I can for her to keep her mind intact,” Felicia said. “From what I know of what I’m going through — I don’t want her to go through a lot of things I’m going through.”

The little girl talks with a therapist. But Felicia worries about where her granddaughter goes, who might take her picture, who might publicize her name and otherwise take advantage of all that the child has endured.

And now they face a trial. Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson announced last week she will seek the death penalty for the suspect.

Polly, a warm grandmotherly presence, doesn’t support the idea. Everyone, she believes, should have a chance to repent. Until retiring three years ago, she was a nurse at the detention center where Roof now is jailed.

“I would have been the one taking care of him,” Polly said. “I think I could have taken care of him with a smile. I know I would have.”

Felicia prefers to let Wilson hand out criminal justice.

“Whatever she decided, I respected,” Felicia said. “Scarlett Wilson didn’t give him the death penalty. He did that to himself. Scarlett Wilson didn’t give him life in prison. He did that to himself.”

Sitting with Felicia in her living room, Polly added: “But ultimately, God has the last word.”

Recently, the church held a memorial service. Felicia had a sinus infection, and the weather was gloomy.

But Tyrone wanted to go, so she went. When they reached the church door, an usher said, “I have them reserved seats.”

She led them to their seats — nearly at the back door. They couldn’t even see the candles, Felicia and Tyrone recalled.

“I have never felt that way,” Felicia said.

Amid so much reverence for the Emanuel Nine, the survivors wonder why they aren’t called the Emanuel 12.

“I’m a survivor and the mother of a child who’s died. I’m forgotten about as somebody who’s alive, but I’m remembered for someone whose child is gone,” Felicia said.

After Tywanza’s death, Felicia locked the door of his bedroom. Her granddaughter lost the key.

So it sat silent and empty through his funeral, his birthday, the day he should have started new college classes.

On Saturday, Felicia and Tyrone summoned a locksmith.

On Sunday, they stepped into their son’s bedroom. They sat together amid Tywanza’s presence: his poetry, his bicycle, his books, his instruments. He hung his writings everywhere.

Then, together, Felicia and Tyrone walked out and locked the bedroom door behind them, to keep the memories safe.

Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563 or follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes.