A gunman remained at large Thursday morning after nine people were shot and killed in Charleston, South Carolina, during a Bible study session at one of the nation’s oldest and most prominent African-American churches, authorities said.
The church played an important role in the state’s history, including the slavery era and the Civil Rights movement.
“This is a hate crime,” Charleston Police Chief Gregory Mullen said early Thursday near the scene at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Among the victims was the church’s pastor, the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, 42, a Democratic member of the state Senate, two sources told NBC News.
Mullen described the suspect as a slender 21-year-old white man with sandy blond hair, wearing a gray sweatshirt or hoodie, jeans and Timberland boots. A reward will be offered later Thursday, he said.
At least six ambulances were seen in the area of the shooting.
Mullen said information was slow to develop because there was a report that “there might have been a secondary explosive device in the scene.” That threat was over, he said, offering no further details.
“This is the most unspeakable and heartbreaking tragedy,” Mayor Joe Riley Jr. said early Thursday, saying the gunman had to be a “hate-filled person.”
Charleston police spokesman Charles Francis said the shooting occurred about 9 p.m. ET. The Rev. Norvel Goff, presiding elder of the Edisto District of the state conference of the AME Church, said a prayer vigil would be held at noon Thursday.
Known as “Mother Emanuel,” the church is the oldest AME church in the South, having been founded in 1816 under the leadership of abolitionist minister Morris Brown, the second bishop of the AME Church in the U.S. The Gothic Revival-style church is on the National Register of Historic Places.
“I’m just absolutely sick to my stomach right now. It’s horrible,” Lisa Phipps, who works across the street as a caterer, told NBC News.
“I just can’t believe this is happening in my community,” Phipps said. “That’s a very active church. … Their influence is wonderful. They do so much for the community.
“I can’t imagine a human being doing something like this,” she said.
The Rev. Thomas Dixon, a pastor with the activist group People United to Take Back Our Community, that a Bible study session likely would have been in progress, as is common in the African-American church “on any given Wednesday night.”