At least 37 persons, most of them students and their families asleep at a small Bible college, died early today when an earthen dam burst and sent a 30-foot wall of red water smashing throug the campus.

The breakup of the dam at about 1:30 a.m. sent tons of water over 187-foot-high Toccoa Falls onto the lower campus of Toccoa Falls Institute, where some 250 people lived in dormitories, houses and mobile homes.

Authorities said several people were reported missing and more than 40 had been injured. The dam, built in 1940, was on the Army Corps of Engineers' hazardous list.

Surviving students at the college prayed at an emotional service later today while law enforcement officers and civil defense workers searched the debris for bodies.

First Lady Rosalynn Carter, informed of the disaster while attending church services in Washington with the President, hurriedly flew in a presidential jet to a samll airport near Toccoa. Mrs. Carter said she would try to comfort the victims and had "a lot" of friends in the area.

Kenny Carroll of Washington, D.C., one of the frew to escape from the basement of a men's dormitory, said: "The Lord woke me up an instant before the water came in.

"I reached over from my bed and was trying to slint the door, but the water forced the door open. When I got out of bed, the water was already a foot high. We ran up the stairs and by the time we got there the whole basement was filled up. It just happened in five or six seconds."

Dave Hinkle, from Syracuse, N.Y., said a wave 30 feet high and 40 feet wide pound into the dorm's second-story windows. The four-story building was extensively damaged, and at least eight faculty houses were destroyed.

Bodies were found as far as two miles from the site of the dam, which held back 80 acre Kelley Barnes Lake.

The dam break came after two days of torrential rains. The skies in northern Georgia were partly cloudy today and at times the sun shore brightly on the devastated campus.

Bill Stacy, 19, who lived with his parents in a traiier, said: "I heard a bunch of people screaming and hollering. There was this terrible screeching noise . . . The trailers were all over the place - some floating, some just caem apart."

Gov. George Busbee, who flew to Toccoa, said the state would begin monitoring "as of this moment" 84 dams in Georgia that have been classified as highly hazardous by the Corps of Engineers. The classification does not mean that a dam is defective, but that a rupture would cause considerable loss of life and property.

Busbee said the dams would be examined, not because they posed imminent danger, but because of the recent heavy rainfall.

He said the state would investigate the Toccoa break, but that "this is no time to start blaming anyone."

The president of the college, Kenn Opperman, said the dam, weakened by several days of hard rain, had been inspected recently. However, he didn't know whether any government agency took part in the inspection.

"We had some flash flooding and as a result of that we inspected the dam," he said. "I'm of the opinion that it was a routine inspection."

The creek had risen to near flood stage Saturday night, and three volunteer firemen were advising area residents to leave as a precaution. Two of the firemen were killed when the dam broke.

Eldon Elsberry, the lone survivor of the trio, said, "I looked up and I saw red water that was really starting to move" down Toccoa Creek. "We ran and got into a jeep. We were going to turn the sirens on the wake the people up. We didn't get to the bridge."

The jeep was swamped, pitching Elsberry and his companions into chest-high water.

"The truck was starting to slide and we knew we couldn't get over the bridge," Elsberry said. He said he grabbed a tree, "and when the tree gave way, I grabbed a breath of air. My right foot got caught when I tried to take my boots off."

Elsberry said he was swept 125 feet downstream. He grabbed a tree and scrambled up onto the bank to safety.

The dam and lake are on property owned by the college, and water from the lake normally filters down a scenic, 187-foot rock drop known as Toccoa Falls. It then runs into a creek, which meanders through the campus of the nondenominational school, which has about 600 students and faculty and is operated by the Christian and Missionary Alliance of Nyack, N.Y.

The college's residential buildings were on a lower part of the campus at the foot of the falls. Classrooms and administration buildings are on higher ground.

Opperman said water spilled over the dam a year ago, causing $100,000 damage to roads and the grounds, but that he knew of no trouble with the dam in his 38 months at the school.

A school spokesman said the dam once provided water and electric power for the school. In recent years, the lake was used only for recreation.

City officials shut off water and natural gas to the 9,000 residents of Toccoa as a precaution against disease and fire.

Rosalynn Carter toured the flood area in a helicopter and later met with reporters.

"Jimmy wanted me to come here to express his concern," she said. "The federal government will cooperate in any way possible under the law," to provide aid.

"It is a terrible tragedy. You have my support and Jimmy's support as you rebuild."

Asked about the dam being on the "high hazard" list, she said, "Sometimes it takes a tragedy to make us do things we should have done before."

The First Lady planned to visit 12 hospitalized survivors before flying back to Washington. Presidential assistant Greg Schneiders said he would spend the night in the area.

In the last five years, there have been two serious dam collapses in the United States. When the Buffalo Creek Dam in West Virginia collapsed in 1972, 118 persons died. And on June 5, 1975, the 305-foot Teton Dam in Idaho - also earthern - burst and sent 80 billion gallons of water into surrounding farmland. Eleven persons died.