in Oklahoma City
and JOHN CARLIN
Oklahoma City, in the heart of middle America, suffered the worst terrorist attack in the history of the United States yesterday morning when a car bomb ripped through a nine-storey federal government building, killing at least 20 people, 17 of them children playing in a day-care centre on the second floor. However, the death toll seemed likely to climb much higher.
Janet Reno, the US Attorney General, said during a news briefing yesterday afternoon that the number of casualties was increasing every moment. Out of 550 people assigned to work at the Murrah building, as many as 250 remained unaccounted for she said, speaking seven and a half hours after the explosion. More than 200 injured included children from another day- care centre at a YMCA near by.
Firefighters and rescue workers with dogs, listening devices and hydraulic tools battled through the day to rescue victims trapped within the rubble and tangled metal of the blackened building. "The casualties are so many that we've had to install a system of priorities," a doctor on the scene said. "The dead and the dying we set aside and we concentrate our efforts on the wounded."
No warning was given before the bombing and no one claimed responsibility, but suspicion immediately fell on Islamic fundamentalist groups. Yesterday afternoon the FBI issued a public alert for the apprehension of three suspects seen leaving the scene of the explosion in a Chevrolet pick-up truck. Two were described as having dark hair and beards.
Sources in Congress said yesterday there had been some nervousness in recent weeks in intelligence circles at reports of a growing Islamic terrorist presence in the US. Former congressman David McCurdy, a Democrat who used to serve on a congressional intelligence committee, revealed that Islamic fundamentalist figures had been present in the Oklahoma area recently. He said that Hamas and Hizbollah representatives had taken part in a convention in Oklahoma City this year. A sombre President Clinton read out a statement in the White House yesterday evening in which he described the bombing as "an act of cowardice". "The United States will not tolerate and I will not allow the people of this country to be intimidated by evil cowards", he said. Promising "the strongest response", Mr Clinton said he had organised a "management team" headed by the FBI and involving the army to handle the crisis and he had declared an emergency in Oklahoma City.
"We will find the people who did this. When we do, justice will be swift, certain and severe. Those people are killers and will be treated as killers."
Ms Reno said, as if expanding on President Clinton's words, that she would be seeking the death penalty for the perpetrators.
The FBI estimated the weight of the bomb at 1,200lb - similar to the bomb allegedly placed by Islamic fundamentalist terrorists in the World Trade Center in New York in February 1993. But the scene of yesterday's bombing evoked images of the explosion at the US embassy in Beirut in 1983, when 241 marines were killed.
The Murrah building is a target which could be construed as political because it was owned by the federal government and housed local branches of the department of agriculture, the firearms bureau and the social security administration.
The explosion removed the face of the building along the entire nine floors and laid bare its concrete and metal guts. A deep crater on the road outside the entrance revealed the spot where the car bomb had detonated. Firefighters said yesterday afternoon that they were struggling to rescue people trapped inside the crater alive. From aerial television images it looked as if a giant bite had been taken out of a third of the building.
Kevin Cox, a state congressman, who was nearby when the bomb went off, said: "It was really terrible with the [YMCA] day-care centre. Babies were crying and screaming, with blood and plaster and insulation on their bodies." George Young, chaplain at St Anthony's Hospital, where some of the injured were taken, sat on a bench holding a small blonde girl with bandages on her face. "I've seen five or six children seriously injured," he said.
Ambulances shuttled back and forth between local hospitals and the scene of the explosion, where paramedics attended wounded victims on stretchers on the roadside. A television commentator observed that these were scenes with which Americans were familiar, but in Grozny or Kobe or Beirut, never in the United States.
The explosion was heard 30 miles away and people sitting in their offices as far as seven blocks away from the Murrah building said they had been blown off their chairs. Many of the injured were not inside the building at all, having been struck by shards of glass that landed over a wide area.
The timing of the bombing - on the second anniversary of the disastrous FBI raid on the headquarters of the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas - led to speculation that yesterday's bombing could be linked to the Waco tragedy, but there was no evidence of any connection beyond the anniversary date.Reuse content