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Nine Dead in Mass Shooting at Church in Charleston, South Carolina; Gunman at Large

"This is the most unspeakable and heartbreaking tragedy."

Nine were killed Wednesday night after a gunman walked into a historic black church and opened fire in Charleston, South Carolina, officials said.

The gunman, still at large, was described as a white male, approximately 21 years of age.

Charleston Police department chief Gregory Mullen said the shooting, which occurred at Bethel AME Church around 9 p.m., will be investigated as a hate crime.

"I do believe this was a hate crime," he said at a news conference, adding that there were survivors, but declining to disclose "specific numbers."

Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. told reporters that it was the most "heartbreaking scene" he's seen in his life.

"This is the most unspeakable and heartbreaking tragedy," he said. "People in prayer ... worshiping God, to have an awful person come in and shoot them is inexplicable, obviously the most intolerable and unbelievable act possible."

A reporter for the Post and Courier tweeted information from a local NAACP official which indicated the gunman intentionally left a survivor so she could tell others what happened.

In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, church leaders gathered in the streets to pray.

“We need You now! Give us strength,” a man said while leading a group in prayer.

“Fill us with your Holy Ghost, because, God, that’s what it’s going to take to keep this community together," he continued.

The man added, “Bring us together, black, white, red, yellow, Christian, Muslim — it don’t make a difference, God!”

Gov. Nikki Haley said she was also praying for the victims and families "touched by tonight's senseless tragedy."

"While we do not yet know all 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," she said in a statement. "Please join us in lifting up the victims and their families with our love and prayers."

Sen. Tim Scott echoed that sentiment, saying the shooting was "absolutely despicable" and "can never be understood."

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.

One of its founders, Denmark Vesey, tried to organize a slave revolt in 1822. He was caught, and white landowners had his church burned in revenge. Parishioners worshipped underground until after the Civil War.

Carousel image via Twitter user @mikeliggett, featured image via @glennsmith5. The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Follow Oliver Darcy (@oliverdarcy) on Twitter

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