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June 18, 2015 – 5:17 am | Views: 241

A white man opened fire during a prayer meeting inside a historic black church in downtown Charleston on Wednesday night, killing nine people, including the pastor, in an assault that authorities described as a hate crime.

Worshippers embrace following a group prayer

Worshippers embrace following a group prayer across the street from the scene of a shooting Wednesday, June 17, 2015, in Charleston, S.C. (David Goldman, AP)

The shooter remained at large Thursday morning.

Police Chief Greg Mullen said he believed the attack at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church was a hate crime, and police were looking for a white male in his early 20s.

The suspect was descibed as about 21 years old, with a slender build. Officials also said the suspect is believed to be wearing a gray sweatshirt, blue jeans and Timberland boots.

Mullen said the scene was chaotic when police arrived, and the officers thought they had the suspect tracked with a police dog, but he got away.

The FBI will aid the investigation, Mullen told a news conference that was attended by FBI Special Agent in Charge David A. Thomas.

We will put all effort, we will put all resources and we will put all of our energy into finding this individual who committed this crime tonight, he said.

He said eight were dead at the scene upon police arrival, and two more were transported to local hospitals. One of those injured died at the hospital, Mullen said.

Mullen said there were some survivors, but he didn’t say how many.

Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley called the shooting the most unspeakable and heartbreaking tragedy.

The only reason that someone could walk into a church and shoot people praying is out of hate, Riley said. It is the most dastardly act that one could possibly imagine, and we will bring that person to justice. … This is one hateful person.

State House Minority leader Todd Rutherford told The Associated Press that the church’s pastor, state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, was among those killed.

Pinckney 41, was a married father of two who was elected to the state house at age 23, making him the youngest member of the house at the time.

He never had anything bad to say about anybody, even when I thought he should, Rutherford, D-Columbia, said. He was always out doing work either for his parishioners or his constituents. He touched everybody.

Near the scene, media crews were pushed a block away from Emanuel AME late Wednesday, police spokesman Charles Francis said, because of a purported bomb threat at the Charleston Marriott hotel.

The attack on the church came two months after the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man, Walter Scott, by a white police officer in neighboring North Charleston that sparked major protests and highlighted racial tensions in the area. The officer has been charged with murder, and the shooting prompted South Carolina lawmakers to push through a bill helping all police agencies in the state get body cameras. Pinckney was a sponsor of that bill.

In a statement, Gov. Nikki Haley asked South Carolinians to pray for the victims and their families and decried violence at religious institutions.

We’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another, Haley said.

Soon after Wednesday night’s shooting, a group of pastors huddled together praying in a circle across the street.

Community organizer Christopher Cason said he felt certain the shootings were racially motivated.

I am very tired of people telling me that I don’t have the right to be angry, Cason said. I am very angry right now.

Even before Scott’s shooting in April, Cason said he had been part of a group meeting with police and local leaders to try to shore up relations.

The Emmanuel AME church is a historic African-American church that traces its roots to 1816, when several churches split from Charleston’s Methodist Episcopal church.

One of its founders, Denmark Vesey, tried to organize a slave revolt in 1822. He was caught, and white landowners had his church burned in revenge. Parishioners worshipped underground until after the Civil War.

GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush has canceled Thursday events in the area because of the shooting.

This is a developing story; please check back for more details.

Associated Press and Chicago Tribune staff

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9 people, including state senator, fatally shot at church in Charleston, S.C.

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