Nine people were shot to death at a historically 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 the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church during a prayer meeting and opened fire. Eight were found dead at the scene. Two others were transported to a hospital, where one later died.
None of the victims have been named publicly.
Mullen said there were others who survived the attack, but he didn’t offer details.
The suspect, a 21-year-old male with sandy blonde hair, 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 were at the scene.
The suspect was described by authorities as a clean shaven white male, 21 years old, slender build and wearing a gray sweatshirt and blue jeans with Timberland boots.
The historically 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.
The church is led by the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who also serves as a South Carolina state senator.
Earlier, a young man was apprehended, but was later released. People from the scene posted on social media expressing doubts of his involvement. Police confirmed the shooter is still at large.
Around 11 p.m. police began pushing media across the street to the Marriott Hotel, where a possible bomb threat was reported.
Republican presidential contender Jeb Bush had been scheduled to campaign in Charleston on Thursday, but has canceled the event.