ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Sept. 20, 2008 -- A massive truck bomb destroyed half of Islamabad's best-known hotel Saturday, killing at least 40 people, wounding more than 250 and leaving a crater 25 feet deep.
Locals who arrived on the scene minutes after the bombing said they saw many additional dead bodies lying the rubble, and officials fear the death toll will increase significantly as rescue teams continue work at the scene.
Just after 8 p.m. local time, an apparent suicide bomber blew himself up as his vehicle was being checked at the luxury Marriott Hotel's entrance, only about 50 feet from the lobby.
The bomb was felt as far as 15 miles away. Within 500 feet of the blast, buildings and trees were shredded, cars crushed and the air heavy with acrid smoke. The bomb was estimated to contain at least 800 pounds of explosives, according to Interior Minister Kamal Shah, but late Sunday local and foreign investigators were saying it was likely much bigger.
"I have retrieved at least 35 to 40 bodies," Amjad Ali Khan told ABC News outside the hotel, his clothes stained with blood. "Some people had brains coming out of their heads."
To walk along the front of the hotel 30 minutes after the bomb exploded was to walk through a war zone. Rubble was piled ten feet high, electric wires sparkled against pools of water and gas, mangled iron gates poked out of the mud, warped by the power of one of Islamabad's largest-ever explosions.
Inside the lobby, the reception desk had been crushed by debris, a piano was thrown against a wall, and a fish flopped against the marble, its glass aquarium lying shattered next to it. For one hour after the blast, volunteers and rescue workers ferried a series of bloodied and dead bodies out to waiting ambulances. This reporter saw at least 8 dead bodies lying in the rubble of the lobby.
Shah told ABC News the government had recently deployed army soldiers in Islamabad after receiving a warning of an imminent attack on the city.
"We had no specific information about the Marriott, but we had information that terrorists were planning to strike inside the capital city," he told ABC News.
The Marriott is one of the most popular places to stay for foreigners, diplomats and Pakistani elite, and is one of the few places in Islamabad allowed to serve alcohol. The bomb exploded at the height of dinner time, when Muslims were eating at the hotel's three restaurants to break their Ramadan fasts.
On this night the hotel was also playing host to out-of-town politicians who had come to Islamabad to listen to President Asif Ali Zardari's first address to parliament. The five-star hotel has been the target of three previous car bombs, but none nearly this large.
No one had claimed responsibility for the bombing, but the Taliban and its allies have been vowing to strike in Pakistan's cities since the military launched a major operation along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
A tape released on the anniversary of September 11, which had been blocked from release until Friday, called for new attacks on Pakistan because of its role as a "puppet regime" of the United States.
The 90-minute tape, "Results of Seven Years of Crusades," featured a long statement from a senior al Qaeda leader, Mustafa Abu al-Yazidd, who called on sympathizers in Pakistan to act.
"We tell the jealous people of mujahedeen of Pakistan," said al-Yazidd on the tape, which included English subtitles, "that in order for the jihad in Afghanistan to continue and be victorious, you must stand with your brothers the mujahedeen in Afghanistan to fight the puppet regime of Pakistan and its aggressive and tyrannical army and strike the interest of the Crusader allies in Pakistan."
Zardari, the new Pakistani president, delivered a nationally televised address after the bombing, promising to "rid Pakistan of this cancer. The day will come when all these people will bow in front of Pakistan's power."
Hours earlier, Zardari had spoken to a joint session of parliament, urging lawmakers to take a strong stand against the militants who operate from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.
"I ask of the government that it should be firm in its resolve to not allow the use of its soil for carrying out terrorist activities against any foreign country," he said.
At least one member of the U.S. military was missing at the scene of the blast and presumed dead, according to a U.S. official in Washington. The official said other U.S. military members eating at one of the hotel's restaurants sustained non-life-threatening injuries. The U.S. embassy in Islamabad declined to comment.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation was monitoring the situation, spokesman Rich Kolko told ABC News.
"FBI teams are waiting to respond to the scene once several issues are coordinated by the State Department and U.S. ambassador in Pakistan," a bureau statement said.
The White House condemned the attack.
"The United States strongly condemns the terrorist attack that took place in Islamabad, Pakistan, today," said National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe. "President Bush offers his sincere condolences to the families of all those lost in today's vicious attack. This is a reminder of the threat we all face. The United States will stand with Pakistan's democratically elected government as they confront this challenge."
Bush was briefed by National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley earlier today on the attack, Johndroe said.
More than two hours after the bomb, the hotel of 290 rooms was still on fire.
Mohammad Sultan, a hotel employee, told the Associated Press he was in the lobby when something exploded. He fell down and everything temporarily went dark. "I didn't understand what it was," he said, "but it was like the world is finished."
Brian Ross, Rehad El-Buri, Kirit Radia and Vija Udenans contributed reporting.