Nine people have died in a shooting at a historic black church in Charleston, S.C., police said early Thursday morning.
"I do believe this was a hate crime," Police Chief Gregory Mullen said.
Eight people died on the scene at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and one person was pronounced dead at a hospital, Mullen said.
Among the dead was the state senator who was pastor of the church, Democrat Clementa Pinckney, WCBD reported.
People were taking part in a prayer meeting at the time of the incident, Mayor Joe Riley said during the press conference.
"This is inexplicable," Riley said. "It is the most intolerable and unbelievable act possible... The only reason someone could walk into church and shoot people praying is out of hate."
Said Police Chief Mullen: "This is a tragedy that no community should have to experience. It is senseless. It is unfathomable that someone would walk into a church when people are having a prayer meeting and take their lives."
Emanuel is the oldest AME church in the South and is led by South Carolina State Sen. Clementa Pinckney, a Democrat. The church has one of the oldest and largest black congregations south of Baltimore, according to its website. Denmark Vesey, executed for attempting to organize a major slave rebellion, was one of the founders
The shooting took place at about 9 p.m. ET, Charleston police said. The gunman is still on the loose, they said.
The suspect is a clean-shaven white male about 21-years-old with sandy blond hair, and is wearing a gray sweatshirt or hoodie, blue jeans and Timberland boots, officials said.
An emergency medical worker told people on the street to "drive far away or to go indoors," Boughton tweeted at about 9:45 p.m. EDT.