Police say nine people were killed in a mass shooting Wednesday night at a historic church in Charleston, South Carolina.
The shooting occurred around 9:30pm at the Emanuel AME Church, one of the city's oldest and most well known black churches.
Charleston Police Chief Gregory Mullen said eight people were found dead at church and another person died later at the hospital. He would not confirm whether the pastor, state Senator Clementa Pinckney, was one of the victims.
"I do believe this was a hate crime," Mullen told reporters, explaining that a false bomb threat complicated the initial investigation. "We were tracking the suspect with K-9s, trying to ensure the suspect was not in area to commit other crimes. We then received information that there might be a secondary explosive device at the scene. We were focused on ensuring the safety of not only responders at the scene, but all of you and members of the public."
The shooter is still on the loose, and police have said they're looking for an approximately 21-year-old white male suspect wearing a grey sweatshirt.
Suspect in shooting on Calhoun St is a w/m approx 21 slender small build wearing a grey sweat shirt blue jeans timberland boots clean shaven— Charleston P.D. (@CharlestonPD) June 18, 2015
Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said city police were being assisted by sheriff's deputies, the State Law Enforcement Division, and the FBI, according to local daily the Post and Courier. Riley described the incident as "the most heartbreaking scene I have ever witnessed in my life," adding that "for this awful person to come in and shoot them is inexplicable and obviously the most intolerable and unbelievable act possible."
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, according to the AP. The church was burned to the ground after founder Denmark Vesey tried to organize a slave revolt in 1822. Parishioners worshipped underground until after the Civil War.
The church announced that it will hold a prayer meeting at midday Thursday in the city for the victims, their families, and friends, urging the Charleston community to join them.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.