Many killed, missing after bombing in Okla.

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — A car bomb ripped deep into America’s heartland Wednesday, killing more than 20 people and leaving 300 missing in a blast that gouged a nine-story hole in a federal office building. Seventeen of the dead were said to be children whose parents had just dropped them off at a day-care center.

‘‘We’re sure that number will go up because we’ve seen fatalities in the building,’’ Fire Chief Gary Marrs said.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, the deadliest U.S. bombing in 75 years.

At least 200 people were injured — 58 critically, Marrs said — and scores were feared trapped in the rubble of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building more than nine hours after the bombing.

‘‘Our firefighters are having to crawl over corpses in areas to get to people that are still alive,’’ Assistant Fire Chief Jon Hansen said.

Attorney General Janet Reno refused to comment on who might have been behind the attack. President Clinton called the bombers ‘‘evil cowards,’’ and Reno said the government would seek the death penalty against them.

Their clothes torn off, victims covered in glass and plaster emerged bloodied and crying from the building, which looked as if a giant bite had been taken out of it, exposing its floors like a dollhouse.

Cables and other debris dangled from the floors like tangled streamers in a scene that brought to mind the car bombings at the U.S. Embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983.

‘‘I dove under that table,’’ said Brian Espe, a state veterinarian who was giving a slide presentation on the fifth floor. ‘‘When I came out, I could see daylight if I looked north and daylight if I looked west.’’

Mayor Ron Norick said the blast was caused by a car bomb that left a crater 8 feet deep. He said the car had been outside, in front of the building.

‘‘Obviously, no amateur did this,’’ Gov. Frank Keating said. ‘‘Whoever did this was an animal.’’

Paramedic Heather Taylor said 17 children were dead at the scene. The children, all at the day-care center, ranged in age from 1 to 7, and some were burned beyond recognition, said Dr. Carl Spengler, one of the first doctors at the scene.

Reno said that 300 people were unaccounted for by late afternoon. About 20 of 40 children in the day-care center were missing.

The blast could be felt 30 miles away. Black smoke streamed across the skyline, and glass, bricks and other debris were spread over a wide area. The north side of the building was gone. Cars were incinerated on the street.

People frantically searched for loved ones, including parents whose children were in the building’s day-care center.

Christopher Wright of the Coast Guard, one of those helping inside the building, said rescuers periodically turned off their chainsaws and prying tools to listen for pleas for help, ‘‘but we didn’t hear anything — just death.’’

‘‘You’re helpless really, when you see people two feet away, you can’t do anything, they’re just smashed,’’ he said.

The building has offices of such federal agencies as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms,

Social Security, Veterans Affairs, the Drug Enforcement Administration and Housing and Urban Development, and a federal employee credit union and military recruiting offices.

The bomb was perhaps 1,000 to 1,200 pounds, said John Magaw, ATF director. As for whether his agency suspected terrorists, he told CNN: ‘‘I think any time you have this kind of damage, this kind of explosion, you have to look there first.’’

The explosion occurred on the second anniversary of the fiery, fatal ending to the federal siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. That siege began with a raid by ATF agents a month and a half earlier.

Oklahoma City FBI spokesman Dan Vogel wouldn’t speculate if there was a connection. The FBI’s offices are about five miles away. Dick DeGuerin, who was cult leader David Koresh’s lawyer, said any such link was just speculation.

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