OKLAHOMA CITY, April 19, 1995 (UPI) -- A car bomb tore apart a federal government building Wednesday in downtown Oklahoma City, killing an undetermined number of people and injuring 300 others in a shattering explosion felt 55 miles away.
Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people died in the blast. The governor's office put the confirmed death toll at 26 late Wednesday, but the number was expected to rise as rescuers searched the wreckage. Among the dead were young children whose day-care center was near the center of the destruction.
The FBI issued an all-points bulletin for three suspects described as Middle Eastern men in connection with the blast that struck the Alfred Murrah Federal Building just after 9 a.m.
''One-half of the building is sheared away. It's as if somebody came and sheared off an entire half of the building,'' said Tara Blume, a witness.
A visibly angry President Clinton swore the United States would root out and prosecute the killers.
''The bombing in Oklahoma City was an attack on innocent children and defenseless citizens,'' Clinton told reporters at a White House news briefing. ''It was an act of cowardice and it was evil. The United States will not tolerate it. And I will not allow the people of this country to be intimidated by evil cowards.''
The explosion at the building at 5th and Robinson streets was caused by a car bomb, said John Magaw, director of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
''Clearly the major explosion occurred outside the building,'' Magaw said. ''What we reconstruct at this point is that a vehicle was pulled up in front of the building and it detonated shortly after 9 o'clock.''
He said it would have taken between 1,000 and 1,200 pounds of explosives to cause a blast of such force. Half of the 12-story Murrah building was sheared off, and nearby buildings were also damaged. Windows in buildings within a two-block radius were shattered. The impact was felt as far as 55 miles away, witnesses said. A massive hole was found where the car bomb had exploded.
"The firefighters said they found an 8-foot crater underneath the car where the bomb exploded,'' said Gene Krier, a spokesman for the Oklahoma Department of Civil Management. ''Two parked cars nearby were fused together.''
Assistant Fire Chief John Hansen said a rocket launcher was found in front of the building. There were reports that as many as two unexploded devices were found at the site, but Hansen said that was unlikely.
''If there was a secondary device it would have blew when the first one came in,'' he said.
Fire Chief Gary Marrs said late Wednesday afternoon that 20 people had been confirmed dead, but he added: ''We are sure that the number will go up. We have seen fatalities in the building that have not been recovered.''
At least six of those killed were children, the governor's office said. A day-care center was located on the second floor of the building.
Attorney General Janet Reno told reporters in Washington that of the 550 people assigned to work in the building, only 250 had been accounted for.
Gov. Frank Keating said he had heard that as many as 40 people were dead, but said that had not been confirmed. ''We've heard all the way up to 40. I talked to Ron Norrick (the mayor) and he said the firefighters are stepping over and across bodies to get to people.''
Rescuers combed the wreckage for any victims who might be trapped in the rubble. A doctor at one of the triage centers set up in the city said that of 80 people pulled from the rubble, 78 were declared dead on the scene, with only two survivors. Dr. Carl Spengler also said that 12 children were declared dead on the scene.
''They have found 80 people, but only two were alive, so they told us to go home,'' said one medical worker at a triage center. The medical workers' reports could not be confirmed.
Hansen said there was some concern strong winds could cause the remains of the building to collapse. Authorities were also concerned that natural gas mains ruptured by the blast could trigger further explosions.
''A terrible tragedy has occurred, considerable loss of life has occurred,'' Keating said. ''This was a ghastly thing that happened.''
Former U.S. Rep. David McCurdy said: ''It's obvious that this was a terrorist attack.''
Magaw said authorities were investigating ''all kind of theories,'' but added it would be ''premature'' to speculate who is responsible.
However, the FBI issued an all-points bulletin for three Middle Eastern men seen in the area, Keating's office said. One man was described as between 20 and 25 years old, and the second was described as between 35 and 38. The third suspect was believed to have been the driver, and no further description was available.
The men were seen driving a brown Chevrolet pickup north on Robinson Street near the federal building, the governor's office said.
At a news conference, Bob Ricks, the FBI special agent in charge in Oklahoma City, would not comment further on the search for suspects.
"At this time, we have no assumptions as to who caused this particular bombing,'' Ricks said. ''We are not anywhere near making a statement regarding that.''
Ricks said the FBI, the lead federal agency in the probe, had received many leads that were being checked out.
In Washington, Reno also said it was too early to comment on who might be responsible. Clinton said the administration was sending the ''world's finest investigators to solve these murders.''
Reno dispatched an FBI team to the scene, and the ATF sent arson and explosives experts to help in the investigation. She said she would seek the death penalty for anyone convicted in the case.
''Let there be no room for doubt: We will find the people who did this,'' Clinton said. ''When we do, justice will be swift, certain and severe. These people are killers and they must be treated like killers.''
In addition to the day-care center, the building housed a number of federal offices, including those of the ATF, Drug Enforcement Administration, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Social Security Administration, Army recruiting, and Department of Defense.
Authorities evacuated nearby 50 Penn Place, the building that houses the local FBI offices, and security was heightened at federal buildings around the country. In Washington, federal officials activated an ''emergency response plan'' in response to threats nationwide. Security was tightened at the U.S. Capitol. Capitol police were placed on ''yellow alert,'' meaning all officers were to check for any suspicious activity. Federal buildings in several other cities were evacuated as a precaution, but no bombs were found in any of those incidents.
Officials at four hospitals near the site of the Oklahoma City blast said nearly 300 people came in for treatment. Many of the injured appeared to have been hit by flying glass. St. Anthony's Hospital, where many of the injured were sent, urged all certified medical personnel to help, and the Red Cross called on people to give blood. Injured people, some covered with blood, were seen staggering from the scene.
''Some of them, you can't make them out, they are so badly injured,'' Blume said.
Another witness, Jack Stevens, said, ''There is a big chunk where it is completely blown out. You can see into the cubicles.''
Lt. Gov. Mary Fallin said a highway patrolman told her ''there were body parts all over.''
Dan Vogel, an FBI spokesman in Oklahoma City, said he was driving in his car when he felt the impact of the blast. ''I looked around the area and I could see this plume of smoke going up in the air and I knew something terrible had happened.''
McCurdy called the blast a ''terrorist attack.''
''My first reaction was there could be a very real connection to some of the fundamentalist groups operating around the city,'' the former congressman said. He said a number of Muslim fundamentalist groups, some with links to Hamas, had recently held a convention in the area.
''There are others who think it may be linked to the Branch Davidians,'' McCurdy said. On Feb. 26, 1993, six people were killed and 1,000 injured when a bomb went off in a parking garage under the World Trade Center in New York City. Four Muslim extremists were convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Eleven other men are currently on trial in Manhattan federal court, charged with plotting a variety of terrorist acts, including the bombing of the Twin Towers.
Wednesday was the second anniversary of the fiery end of the 51-day siege at the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas. Sect leader David Koresh and more than 80 of his followers died in the burning compound as federal agents tried to force their surrender.
Mike Cox, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety in Austin, said added security measures are being taken at all DPS offices in Texas, including the regional office in Waco.
''We will have a very visible presence so people will know we are on the lookout,'' he said. ''It's early to say anything, but we are aware that this is the second anniversary of the Branch Davidian siege.''
Keating, a former FBI agent, said he had talked with Clinton about the threat of terrorism. ''It's the challenge of a free society to protect and prevent against these kinds of incidents,'' Keating said.