charleston south carolina church shooting
Police respond to a shooting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, June 17, 2015. A gunman opened fire on Wednesday evening at the historic African-American church in downtown Charleston, South CarolinaREUTERS/Randall Hill

Charleston police have launched a massive manhunt for a white gunman who is suspected of killing nine people in a historic African-American church.

The suspect, a 21-year-old white male described as "slender and clean-shaven", entered the church while a Bible study meeting was taking place, sat down, and at around 9pm started shooting.

According to reports, the suspect reloaded five times before shooting and killing eight people inside the church. The ninth victim died afterwards.

Family members told ABC news that a five-year-old child was in the church at the time of the shooting and survived by playing dead.

The gunman was said to be blonde, wearing a grey sweatshirt, blue jeans and Timberland boots. Helicopters are still hovering above Charleston and officers with dogs are patrolling the streets surrounding the church as the search for the shooting suspect continues.

Following the shooting, a group of pastors held a prayer vigil across the street.

Charleston mayor Joe Riley called the shooting "an unspeakable and heartbreaking tragedy".

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley said: "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."