Police in Charleston, South Carolina, have arrested a white gunman who killed nine people in a historic African-American church including the pastor, a black state senator, in an attack the US Department of Justice called a hate crime.
he shooter, a 21-year-old white man with sandy blond hair, sat with churchgoers inside Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church for about an hour on Wednesday before opening fire, Police Chief Gregory Mullen said.
The US Department of Justice opened a hate crime investigation into the shooting, which follows a string of racially charged killings that have prompted waves of protest across the United States over the past year and sparked the "Black Lives Matter" movement. [ID: nL1N0Z40RV]
Demonstrations have rocked cities including New York, Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri, following police killings of unarmed black men including Eric Garner, Freddie Gray and Michael Brown.
A white police officer was charged with murder after he shot an unarmed black man in the back in April in neighboring North Charleston.
The victims included Reverend Clementa Pinckney, who was the church's pastor and a Democratic member of the state Senate, his cousin and fellow state senator Kent Williams told CNN.
"This is an unfathomable and unspeakable act by somebody filled with hate and with a deranged mind," Charleston Mayor Joe Riley told reporters.
Six females and three males died in the attack, Mullen said.
The shooting recalled the 1963 bombing of an African-American church in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four girls and galvanized the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
The Charleston church is one of the largest and oldest black congregations in the South, according to its website. It has its roots in the early 19th century, and was founded in part by a freed slave who was later executed for organizing a revolt, according to the U.S. National Park Service.
"This tragedy that we are addressing right now is indescribable," Mullen said. "We are committed to do whatever is necessary to bring this individual to justice."
'WHERE ARE YOU SAFE?'
The community reacted with shock and grief after Wednesday's shooting.
"I'm heartbroken," said Shona Holmes, 28, a bystander at the aftermath of the shooting. "It's just hurtful to think that someone would come in and shoot people in a church. If you're not safe in church, where are you safe?"
The FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and other agencies have joined in the investigation, Mullen said.
Eight victims were found dead in the church, Mullen said, and a ninth died after being taken to hospital. Three people survived the attack. Officials did not immediately identify the victims.
Williams called Pinckney's death hard to believe.
"It's devastating, devastating that someone would go into God's house and commit such a crime," Williams told CNN. "It's just a huge, huge loss."
Early today, Mullen released photos of the suspect taken from the church, as well as of a black sedan that he was seen leaving in. Mullen added there was "no reason to believe" that he was not in the Charleston area.
The shooter told one survivor he would let her live so she could tell others what happened, the president of the Charleston NAACP, Dot Scott, told the local Post and Courier newspaper.
Following the attack, Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, canceled an appearance in Charleston that had been scheduled for Thursday morning.
"Governor Bush's thoughts and prayers are with the individuals and families affected by this tragedy," his campaign team said in a statement.