Nine people were shot to death at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, on Wednesday night, the Charleston Police Department confirmed at news conference early Thursday.
Calling it “the worst night of my career,” Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen said a gunman entered the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church during a prayer meeting and opened fire. Eight people were found dead at the scene. Two others were transported to a hospital, where one later died.
None of the victims has been named by police. However, State House Minority leader Todd Rutherford said the church’s pastor, state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, was among those killed, according to the Associated Press.
Mullen said there were others who survived the attack, but he didn’t offer details.
The suspect, a white male around 21 years old, was still at large. Mullen called on the public and the media to contact police with any information they may have. Mullen said a reward would be offered, with the amount to be announced later Thursday.
“I do believe this is a hate crime,” Mullen said. “It will be investigated as a hate crime.”
“The only reason someone could walk into a church and shoot people praying is out of hate,” said Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, speaking at the same news conference. “It is the most dastardly act that one could possibly imagine.”
The shootings took place around 9 p.m., WCSC reported, and prompted a large police response. At least six ambulances reported to the scene.
The suspect was described by authorities as being clean shaven with sandy blond hair and a slender build, wearing a gray sweatshirt and blue jeans with Timberland boots.
As police searched for the shooter, worshippers and other members of the community gathered to mourn and pray.
Worshippers gather to pray in a hotel parking lot across the street from the Emanuel AME Church. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
At around 11 p.m., police began pushing media across the street after a possible bomb threat was reported near the scene of the shooting.
No bomb was found.
Police stand outside the Emanuel AME Church following a shooting Wednesday, June 17, 2015, in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
The historic black church, commonly referred to as “Mother Emanuel,” has been around for hundreds of years. According to the church website, Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church has “one of the largest and oldest black congregations south of Baltimore, Maryland.” One of the church’s founding members, Denmark Vesey, organized a slave uprising that started in 1821. Civil rights leaders also visited during the 1960s.
Earlier, a young man was apprehended by authorities, but was later released. He came forward on Facebook and identified himself as photographer Austin Rich, and said his gray shirt and black pants looked similar to the clothing worn by the suspect.
“I understand that the officers were simply doing their job and they did it well,” he wrote. “They asked several questions, checked my phone records and told me I was clear to go. I am thankful for the professionalism of the officers on duty, and have a tremendous amount of respect for them as well.”
Republican presidential contender Jeb Bush had been scheduled to campaign in Charleston on Thursday, but has canceled the event.
Anyone with information about the shooting should call the Charleston Police Department at (843) 743-7200.
This story is developing. Check back for updates.