A gunman entered one of the oldest black churches in the country on Wednesday night and opened fire, killing a state senator and other church members who were attending a Bible study.
Charleston, S.C., Police Chief Greg Mullen told reporters, “I do believe this was a hate crime.”
The shooting began at 9:05 p.m. at the Emanuel AME Church, a congregation that dates back to 1791. One of the church’s founders was Denmark Vesey, who was executed after planning a slave rebellion.
Nine died in the shooting, including the pastor — State Sen. Clementa Pinckney, 41, who was first elected to the statehouse at age 23. Al Sharpton tweeted that Pinckney helped lead a prayer vigil for Walter Scott, who was shot in the back by North Charleston police in April.
Officials didn’t have a number yet of those wounded in the mass shooting.
Police were searching for a white male in his early 20s, wearing a grey sweatshirt and jeans, with a slender build, sandy blonde hair, and clean shaven. The FBI is assisting local police.
Officers briefly took into custody a photojournalist, Austin Rich, who has dark hair but was dressed in a grey shirt near the scene. “I understand that the officers were simply doing their job and they did it well. I was compliant and escorted across the street, to the Marriott Courtyard Hotel and then questioned,” Rich wrote on his Facebook page. “I gave them the details of where I was and who I was with. 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.”
In addition to the shooting, a bomb threat was later called into a nearby hotel where people had gathered.
Mayor Joe Riley, who has led Charleston since 1975, called the shooting “the most intolerable and unbelievable act possible… the only reason someone could walk into church and shoot people praying is out of hate.”
Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) said his “heart is breaking for Charleston and South Carolina tonight.” He was on a plane late Wednesday to return home from Washington.
“This senseless tragedy at a place of worship — where we come together to laugh, love and rejoice in God’s name — is despicable and can’t be understood,” Scott said. “Tonight we stand in prayer for Pastor Pinckney and his congregation, and the families who are enduring unimaginable pain at their loss.”
“We will come together as a city and as a state to lift those up who need us most right now. I hope for their sake, and for the people of Charleston, that the perpetrators of this terrible crime are swiftly brought to justice.”
“Thoughts and prayers to the victims and their families of tonight’s tragic shooting at the Emmanuel AME church,” tweeted Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.), who represents Charleston.
Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush was due in Charleston on Thursday for an event, but canceled his visit in the wake of the shooting.
“Governor Bush’s thoughts and prayers are with the individuals and families affected by this tragedy,” said a statement from his campaign.