(CHARLESTON, S.C.) — Nine people were killed in an “unfathomable” act of violence at a historic black Charleston, South Carolina church Wednesday evening when a gunman opened fire during a prayer service in what police believe is a hate crime.
Charleston police chief Greg Mullen said that eight people were found dead inside the church. Two other people were rushed to the hospital and one died, making it the deadliest mass shooting in the U.S since 12 were killed inside the Washington Navy Yard in September 2013.
“It is senseless,” Mullen said at a press conference Wednesday evening. “It is unfathomable that somebody would walk into a church when people are having a prayer meeting and take their lives.”
Authorities have not released any of the victim’s identities but confirmed that there were survivors who were inside the church at the time of the shooting. It was not clear how many survived.
“What we need right now is for everyone to come together and pray for these families,” Mullen said.
The NAACP expressed its condolences for the families of the victims.
“The NAACP was founded to fight against racial hatred and we are outraged that 106 years later, we are faced today with another mass hate crime,” said the group’s president Cornell William Brooks. “There is no greater coward than a criminal who enters a house of God and slaughters innocent people engaged in the study of scripture.”
Mullen said that the FBI was on the scene and working with local authorities, as they would in any shooting of this “size and scope.” Both Mullen and Riley said they believed it was a hate crime.
“The only reason someone would walk into church and shoot people praying is hate,” Mayor Joe Riley said.
The mayor said that he met with some of the families and described it as the “most heart-breaking scene I have ever witnessed.”
“People were coming together praying, and an awful person coming in and shooting was the most awful and inexplicable act possible,” he added.
Mullen added that the city will be offering a reward for information about the suspect but the amount will be set later in the day.
Investigators believe that “as far as we know right now” there was only one suspect in the tragedy, which unfolded around 9 p.m., but they consider him to be armed and “extremely” dangerous.
Officials described him as a 21-year-old white man with sandy blond hair and a slender build wearing a gray hoodie, blue jeans and Timberland boots.
Police were using canines to try to track him down.
Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, built in 1891, is the oldest of its kind in the South, according to their website.
It is listed among the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places.
The house of worship, led by Rev. Clementa Pinckney, has played a role in the civil rights movement. Coretta Scott King led an estimated group of 1,500 demonstrators there during a protest in 1969 and they faced down national guardsmen, according to historic reports of the incident.
Outside the Courtyard Marriott, down the street from the church, a group of pastors gathered to pray.
“We need that peace, Lord,” members of the prayer circle were heard saying. “We need that peace you talk about in your word.”
A man in the prayer circle spoke to WCIV-TV briefly after calling for answers.
“We’re asking the community to just remain peaceful, but at the same time we want some answers as to how this happened and why,” the man said.
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