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`I'VE NEVER HEARD ANYTHING THAT LOUD'

An explosion believed caused by a bomb shattered a downtown federal office building Wednesday, blowing away an entire nine-story wall. The governor said there was a "considerable" number of deaths.

"The facts are not in, but what we do know, a terrible tragedy has occurred here in Oklahoma City," Gov. Frank Keating said. "Considerable loss of life has occurred."The force of the explosion at the Alfred Murrah Building, which took place shortly after 9 a.m., could be felt as far as 30 miles away. Black smoke streamed across the skyline, and glass, bricks and other debris were spread over a wide area.

Hundreds of federal workers are assigned to the building.

Carole Lawton, 62, a secretary in the department of Housing and Urban Development, was sitting at her desk on the seventh floor when the explosion hit.

"All of a sudden the windows blew in," she said. "It got real dark and the ceiling just started coming down." She said she then heard "the roar of the whole building crumbling." She managed to crawl down some stairs and was not injured.

Another worker who would not give his name told KFOR-TV: "I came out from under the desk and there just wasn't any building left around me. Our whole office area is gone."

More than two hours after the explosion, people were still trapped in the building.

"We have to crawl on our stomachs and feel our way, and we're talking to victims who are in there and reassuring them that we're doing everything within the good Lord's power to reach them and get to them," Assistant Fire Chief Jon Hansen said.

"It's going to be a very slow process."

A second, unexploded bomb was believed to have been found in the building, authorities said.

"Public safety personnel on the scene think they have found an unexploded device in the building," said Jack Killorin, spokesman for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in Washington.

"We believe this was a bombing, and we are responding as if it was, but we do not have any forensic evidence yet to confirm that," he said. "The damage, however, appears consistent with a bombing."

Killorin added that investigators have not ruled out possible other causes, like a gas leak. Agents on the scene are trying first to check out and disarm the suspected bomb found in the building, if it is a bomb, Killorin said.

Neither Hansen nor the governor gave any numbers on loss of life. It was clear that scores were injured. Crews set up an emergency center nearby, and some of the injured sat on the sidewalks, blood on their heads or arms, awaiting aid. St. Anthony Hospital put out a call for more medical help.

President Clinton directed that emergency federal assistance be offered to help deal with the explosion.

The fear there was a second bomb sent emergency workers scurrying from the building and others running from the area about 11/2 hours after the first blast.

Besides the local offices of the ATF bureau, the building houses such agencies as Social Security, Veterans Affairs, the Drug Enforcement Administration, Housing and Urban Development, a federal employee credit union, a day-care center and military recruiting offices.

In all, more than 500 federal employees assigned to building, said Anne Marshall, a spokeswoman for the General Services Administration.

The explosion occurred on the second anniversary of the fiery, fatal ending of the federal siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. That siege began with a raid by ATF agents on Feb. 28, 1993.

Oklahoma City FBI spokesman Dan Vogel said he wouldn't speculate if there was a connection. The FBI is not housed in the building downtown but is in an office complex about five miles away.

At the scene, the nine-story building looked like it had been rocked by a bomb. From top to bottom, floors caved in. The north side of the building was gone. Burning debris and burning cars lined streets.

People frantically searched for loved ones, including parents whose children were in the day-care center housed in the building. Downtown business stopped as nearby buildings were evacuated.

"I thought we were dead," said Ginny Grilley, office manager for Trammel Crow Co. She was on the 30th floor of City Place, which is several blocks away. "I've never heard anything that loud."

She said she could see "a lot of damage all over" to nearby buildings.

"It was just terrifying," she said. "When you look up and see most of that building gone and cars destroyed and people hurt . . . it was just terrible."

The FBI was setting up a command center at its Washington headquarters to manage the investigation. Justice Department spokesman John Russell said, "We're doing everything we're supposed to, but we don't even know yet if the explosion was caused by a bomb."

The building is located at 200 N.W. Fifth St.