Credit Wade Spees/The Post and Courier, via Associated Press
A white gunman opened fire Wednesday night at a historic black church in this city’s downtown, killing nine people before fleeing and setting off an overnight manhunt, the police said.
At a news conference with Charleston’s mayor early Thursday, the police chief, Greg Mullen, called the shooting a hate crime.
“This is a tragedy that no community should have to experience,” he said. “It is senseless and unfathomable that someone would go into a church where people were having a prayer meeting and take their lives.”
The police said the gunman walked into the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church around 9 p.m. and began shooting.
Eight people died at the scene, Chief Mullen said. Two people were taken to the Medical University of South Carolina, and one of them died on the way.
“Obviously, this is the worst night of my career,” Chief Mullen said. “This is clearly a tragedy in the city of Charleston.”
City officials did not release information about the victims and did not say how many people were in the church during the shooting. Hospital officials declined to comment.
Credit Richard Ellis/European Pressphoto Agency
The pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, 41, and his sister were among those killed, said J. Todd Rutherford, the minority leader of the State House of Representatives.
Mr. Rutherford, who has served in the State Legislature with Mr. Pinckney since 1998, recalled him as a tireless leader with a booming voice and a mission to serve.
“He was called to the ministry when he was 13, ordained at 18, elected to the House at 23 and the Senate at 27,” Mr. Rutherford said. “He was a man driven by public service.”
Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. said the city was offering a reward for information leading to the arrest of the gunman, whom the police described as a cleanshaven white man about 21 years old with sandy blond hair and wearing a gray sweatshirt, bluejeans and Timberland boots.
“To walk into a church and shoot someone is out of pure hatred,” the mayor said as he walked away after the news conference.
Law enforcement officers from the F.B.I.; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division; and other agencies were assisting. Chief Mullen said the police were tracking the gunman with police dogs.
Credit David Goldman/Associated Press
Around 10:45 p.m., police officers escorted a man in handcuffs who appeared to match the attacker’s description. But officials said later that they were still searching for the gunman.
In the first hours after the shooting, the police blocked reporters and passers-by from approaching the church, opposite a Marriott Courtyard hotel, because of a bomb threat. Many among the news media cluster were political reporters in town to cover campaign events of Hillary Rodham Clinton and Jeb Bush.
Helicopters with searchlights circled overhead, and a group of pastors knelt and prayed across the street.
“The question is, ‘Why God?’ ” a man wearing a shirt bearing the name of the Empowerment Missionary Baptist Church said during the prayer.
Later, a group of church leaders gathered at the corner of Calhoun and King Streets, a few blocks from where the shooting occurred, and held an impromptu news conference. Tory Fields, a member of the Charleston County Ministers Conference, said he believed the attacker had targeted the victims because of their race.
“It’s obvious that it’s race,” he said. “What else could it be? You’ve got a white guy going into an African-American church. That’s choice. He chose to go into that church and harm those people. That’s choice.”
The church is one of the nation’s oldest black congregations. The Gothic Revival building dates from 1891 and is considered a historically significant building, according to the National Park Service.
The congregation was formed by black members of Charleston’s Methodist Episcopal Church who broke away “over disputed burial ground,” according to the website of the National Park Service.
In 1822, one of the church’s co-founders, Denmark Vesey, tried to foment a slave rebellion in Charleston, the church’s website says. The plot was foiled by the authorities and 35 people were executed, including Mr. Vesey.
The church houses the oldest black congregation south of Baltimore, the National Park Service said.
Gov. Nikki R. Haley said in a statement that she and her family were praying for the victims.
“While we do not yet know all of the details, we do know that we’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another,” the governor said. “Please join us in lifting up the victims and their families with our love and prayers.”
Late Wednesday, the campaign staff of Mr. Bush, the former governor of Florida who is seeking the Republican nomination for president, said he was canceling appearances planned for Thursday in Charleston because of the shooting. Mrs. Clinton was in Charleston on Wednesday, but an aide said she had left the city before the shooting.
Bakari Sellers, a member of the South Carolina House of Representatives, said he was still at a fund-raiser Mrs. Clinton had attended in the early evening when he heard about the shooting only blocks away. He said the mood among the attendees, several of whom knew the church and its pastor well, quickly turned from hope to “darkness and despair.”