CHARLESTON (NBC NEWS )- In a matter of seconds, a moment of quiet prayer turned into a massacre.
“We were just about to say the prayer to be released,” said Felecia Sanders, one of three people who survived when a gunman opened fire during Bible study at her Charleston church on June 17.
“He caught us with our eyes closed. I never told nobody this.”
Sanders and another survivor, Polly Sheppard, spoke to NBC News’ Lester Holt in an exclusive interview Wednesday. They said they want those killed in the shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church to be remembered as heroes, not as victims.
Sanders was at Bible study with her son Tywanza, 26, her 11-year-old granddaughter, and another relative of hers, Susie. She, her granddaughter and Sheppard were the only ones who left the room alive.
The scene of horror ended with nine black parishioners slain by the white suspect, 21-year-old Dylann Roof. Prosecutors have called it a hate crime and are seeking the death penalty for Roof.
Sanders had just closed her eyes in prayer when the unfamiliar man the group had welcomed earlier with open arms into their Bible study suddenly opened fire, she said.
“It sounded like a transformer blew,” she said.
Sanders told her young granddaughter to play dead as Tywanza, who had already been shot, crawled across the room to try to protect Susie in her final moments.
“What I think of Tywanza, those last moments — my hero. My hero,” Sanders told NBC News’ Lester Holt. “He took a lot of bullets.”
“I was telling my son, ‘Just lay here, just lay here,'” she added. “And my granddaughter was hollering, saying she was so afraid,” Sanders said. “I was trying to keep everyone close to me as calm as I could.”
Instead of harboring resentment against Roof, Sanders has forgiveness in her heart — and a question.
“I would like to ask him why. I really want to ask him why he did it,” Sanders said. “If we were so nice to you, why did you do it?”
Prosecutors say Roof had been planning for months to commit an act that would increase racial tension in the U.S. by getting retribution for what he perceived as crimes against white people. He has appeared in photos holding Confederate flags, and federal authorities say he authored an online decree that lambasted integration and was full of racial slurs.
Sanders told NBC News she plans on going to every one of Roof’s hearings.
“I want Dylann to see my face. 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,” she said.
Sheppard said she didn’t go to Roof’s recent bond hearing, but said, “I hold no malice.”
“I’m going to try to get better from this,” she said. “I have to forgive him.”
She said she didn’t think Roof should get the death penalty.
“I don’t believe in the death penalty,” Sheppard 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.”
Whatever he gets, Sanders added, “Dylann Roof did to himself.”
“When he walked into Emanuel Church, he already decided the rest of his life,” she said. “Nobody gave him the death penalty, neither life in prison. He did it to himself. So whatever it is, I’ll accept.”
The victims, who have been dubbed “The Charleston Nine” by some, only tell half the story, Sheppard said.
“It is the Charleston 12. There’s 12 of us,” she said. “We have to die to be recognized? Thank God you have three alive. You should be honored to say 12.