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Authorities Search For Suspect Who Killed 9 At S.C. Church

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

We're hearing this morning more about the mass shooting at a church in South Carolina last night. Nine people who were at a prayer meeting are dead. Officials say the pastor is among the victims. It happened at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, the oldest church - one of the oldest churches - in the South. The lone suspect, a young white man, is still at large. City officials are calling the mass tragedy a hate crime. Here's Charleston Police Chief Gregory Mullen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GREGORY MULLEN: This tragedy that we're addressing right now is undescribable. No one in this community will ever forget this night.

MONTAGNE: That's the Charleston police chief. On the line with us now from Charleston is reporter Sarah McCammon. She's with Georgia Public Broadcasting. Good morning.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Hello.

MONTAGNE: Now, tell us what is now known about the victims because some information has emerged this morning.

MCCAMMON: Yeah, police are being very careful. They've said they don't want to release victim - identifying information about the victims until the coroner comes out with that. But they have said that there were three male victims, six female. Names and ages have not been released. We are hearing, though, from - several state and local officials have told media outlets that among the victims was State Senator Clementa Pinckney. He was a state senator from South Carolina, of course, and in addition to that was the pastor of Emanuel AME Church. Other details, though, about the other victims have yet to come out. And we also were told there were three survivors.

MONTAGNE: Now, that church, just briefly, is an historic important church in terms of the black community.

MCCAMMON: It is. It dates back to the early 19th century. It's a beautiful, white-spire-at-the-top, very classic-looking church in downtown Charleston, nestled among a lots of other classic-looking churches, very important to African-American history and civil rights. One of the founders, as I understand it, was involved in planning slave uprisings before the Civil War. There were times the church had to go underground. There was a time the church was burned, but the congregation has survived and persisted and is really central to the African-American community here in Charleston.

MONTAGNE: And so this terrible story now is that this gunman, a young, white man - his picture has been released, so, you know, you can - one can see that for oneself - he joined the prayer service, and then what?

MCCAMMON: Right, Renee. Police say he came to the prayer service and was there for nearly an hour before he opened fire. And they did release some photos from a church security camera this morning - thin, white male, said to be about 21 years old, wearing a gray sweatshirt with dark pants and boots. He was seen leaving the church in those images in a black four-door sedan that police have been searching all night and this morning looking for him. And they have released those photos and are asking the public to be careful but to be on the lookout and try to help find him.

MONTAGNE: And there's also news this morning that the Justice Department is getting involved, opening up a hate crime case in this situation.

MCCAMMON: Right. And the police chief here in Charleston has that - he has no doubt that this is a hate crime. That, of course, means that extra resources for addressing this and investigating it, help from the FBI and other federal, state and local officials all working together to try to find the suspect who, again, is still at large.

MONTAGNE: Well, Sarah, thanks very much.

MCCAMMON: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: That's reporter Sarah McCammon speaking to us from Charleston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.