A year after a shooting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina left nine dead, Jennifer Pinckney, whose husband, pastor Clementa Pinckney, was among those murdered, is speaking out for the first time, sharing the harrowing details of how she survived and how her family is moving forward.
Jennifer was in the church's study with one of the couple's then 6-year-old daughter, Malana. While Melana watched TV, Jennifer said she worked on a project for the school library she runs — until she heard the unmistakable sound of gunshots.
"I started hearing gunshots and believe it or not, I know God was with us," Jennifer told NBC's Craig Melvin for TODAY Saturday in an NBC News exclusive.
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Despite a quick thought to leave the office and run for help, Jennifer said she heard the gunshots come closer. "That's when I leaped under the desk with (Melana)," Jennifer said. "She was like 'Momma, is daddy gonna die?'"
Police say that while the mother and daughter silently huddled under the desk, then 21-year-old Dylann Roof shot and killed him and eight others in the church. Jennifer said she thought Roof was trying to get into the office.
"He started shaking the knob like he was trying to get in," she said. "And then he apparently turned, and I heard the door chime."
But even though Roof left, the tragedy was far from over for Jennifer, who had called 911 and stayed on the phone with the dispatcher until police arrived.
"I heard the police when they came in say, 'Here's a body,'" she said. "Then I heard them say, 'Tell them to bring in the body bags.'"
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As police made their way to the study, they found Jennifer and her daughter still hiding until the desk. They carried Malanda outside with her eyes covered, and then it was Jennifer's turn. "There was just something that you can never imagine," she said. "You almost thought you were in a slaughterhouse."
And since last June, Jennifer has traveled the country paying tribute to all the victims that night and promoting the foundation she started to advance her husband's work on healthcare and education. She's also become an outspoken advocate for changing gun laws.
She also helped set up a foundation in her husband's honor that helps support poor families in the region through educational, health, pastoral training, and charitable causes. Those interested in supporting the foundation can donate here.
But most of her time is spent raising two young girls who desperately miss their father.
"I think about him every day," Jennifer said. "It's hard. I still shed tears. I still cry. I miss him. He was my soul mate."