CHARLESTON, S.C. – A gunman opened fire during Wednesday night services at the 150-year-old Emmanuel AME church in downtown Charleston.
Charleston Mayor Joe Riley confirmed there have been nine fatalities. He released this statement:
“We’re still gathering information so it’s not the time yet for details,” he said. “I will say that this is an unspeakable and heartbreaking tragedy in this most historic church, an evil and hateful person took the lives of citizens who had come to worship and pray together.”
Riley said city police were being assisted by sheriff’s deputies, the State Law Enforcement Division and the FBI.
An impromptu prayer circle came together in the street near the Embassy Suites in downtown Charleston as neighbors and others gathered seeking information.
A bomb threat reportedly called in to Embassy Suites prompted authorities to close Meeting Street to traffic.
An active search for the suspect continued overnight.
Police spokesman Charles Francis described the suspect as a 21-year-old clean-shaven white male in a gray sweatshirt/hoodie and jeans with boots. He has a slender build.
Although it is not known how many people were at the church when gunshots rang out, Wednesday is a traditional night for midweek services and activities in churches across South Carolina.
Multiple media sources were reporting that the pastor of Emanuel AME Church is State Sen. Clementa Pinckney, who was at a Hillary Rodham Clinton fundraiser Wednesday night.
The church has one of the oldest and largest black congregations south of Baltimore, according to its website.