Police say nine people have died after a mass shooting at the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal church in downtown Charleston at around 9pm (local time) on Wednesday night.
According to a Sky news report, the city’s mayor, Joe Riley, confirmed there had been fatalities and said: “This is an unspeakable and heartbreaking tragedy in this most historic church, an evil and hateful person took the lives of citizens who had come to worship and pray together.”
State Senator Marlon Kimpson told the paper he had been talking with Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon and said: “It’s my understanding that there are some very serious injuries and possibly deaths.”
“I ask the nation to keep Charleston in our prayers.”
Shortly after the shooting, people were told to move back after a bomb threat was made in the area, the Reuters news agency reported.
A police spokesman said they were looking for a slim white male suspect, aged around 21 and wearing a grey sweatshirt, blue jeans and Timberland boots.
A police helicopter was assisting officers on the ground – wearing bulletproof vests and carrying guns – with the search for the shooter.
Cameras at the scene filmed police taking a white man in a grey T-shirt into a nearby Marriott hotel – but law enforcement officials said they were still looking for the gunman.
Local media said the more than 150-year-old Emmanuel AME church has a predominantly black congregation and is one of the oldest in the country.
Fox News reported that a bible study session is held in the basement every Wednesday evening.
The church’s pastor, Clementa Pinckney, is also a state senator and is thought to have been in the building at the time of the shooting.
Tearful relatives were seen gathering at the edge of the police cordon, where they were speaking to emergency services workers.
Charleston Governor Nikki Haley said in a statement: “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.”
Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush announced he was cancelling a scheduled appearance in Charleston on Thursday.