Nine people were killed at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, Wednesday evening when an unknown gunman opened fire on a prayer group before fleeing the scene.
Police said the shooter, who is still at large, sat in the prayer meeting for an hour before opening fire. The Department of Justice and the FBI are now launching a hate crime investigation into the shooting.
Three men and six women are dead. Eight died at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, police said, and another passed away at a local hospital. Three people survived the shooting.
The only reason someone would walk into a church and shoot people that were praying is out of hate
“I do believe this is a hate crime,” added Gregory Mullen, Charleston’s chief of police.
Police responded to reports of a shooting at the church, one of the largest and oldest black congregations south of Baltimore, just after 9 p.m. local time, where they found a number of the victims inside.
Pastor Clementa Pinckney, who was also a state senator and well-regarded community leader, was among the victims, according to House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford.
Mullen declined to identify any of the victims.
Authorities named Dylann Storm Roof as the primary suspect. He is a 21-year-old white male with sandy blond hair. He ran from the scene of the shooting and is currently at large. Police describe him as “extremely dangerous.”
Speaking at a news conference at 6 a.m. ET, police told reporters they had obtained surveillance videos of the suspect and his car. They released a flyer with Storm’s image and appealed for people with information to get in contact. They identified him by name a few hours later.
Storm is currently free on bond in connection with recent arrests on drug, trespassing charges, the Post and Courier reports.
The police chief earlier said there would be a reward offered for information that leads to Storm’s, with police “going to do everything in our power to find this individual.”
The town’s mayor said local and state law enforcement as well as the FBI are working together to capture the suspect.
‘If we’re not safe in the church, God you tell us where we are safe!’
As the news spread throughout the local community, ministers and congregants of the church gathered in a prayer circle, holding hands and asking why, of all places, it was a church where people could be shot down.
“If we’re not safe in the church, God you tell us where we are safe!” one yelled. “How can I take my child to church if a place of worship isn’t safe?” asked another.
Other local officials, as well as presidential candidates Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton, expressed their condolences for the victims and their friends and family on social media.
Bush, in South Carolina at the time of the shooting, canceled his Thursday event in Charleston. Clinton had left the state just hours before.