An explosion at the crowded Oktoberfest beer festival here last night killed at least nine persons including one child, and injured 115 others, police said early this morning.
A police spokesman said the blast was apparently caused by a powerful device in a trash can near an exit from the annual festival. "We are assuming it was a terrorist attack," a police spokesman said.
Although police Chief Manfred Schreiber told reporters that evidence pointed to the use of explosives, he would not commit himself further until explosives experts have completed their investigation.
Witnesses told police a sheet of flame shot 50 feet into the air at the main entrance to the festival grounds, which were jammed with an estimated 100,000 visitors.
"I saw bodies lying all around," said Andrea Rohloff, a Munich resident. "The entire street under the arched entryway at the main gate, the one that is decorated with garlands, was bathed in blood."
"It's gruesome chaos here," the driver of one of the first fire trucks on the scene reported to the central station by radio. "A terrible catastrophe."
Taxi drivers said they halted their vehicles at the sight of the bodies of the dead and wounded strewn across the streets surrounding the Theresienwiese, the giant, one-square-mile open area where the Oktoberfest is held each year.
Citizens several miles away reported feeling the force of the blast, the first such catastrophe ever to strike the Munich Oktoberfest that reularly draws tens of thousands of American and other tourists to the city.
The area around the Thereesienwiese was closed off by police minutes after the bomb blast first was reported around 10:20 p.m. (4:20 p.m. EDT), just 10 minutes before the beer taps officially stop flowing at the tents and stands erected around the merry-go-rounds of the Oktoberfest, police said.
Private doctors were called to the explosion site and personal cars were used as emergency vehicles in addition to ambulances, fire and police cars.
Many of the wounded were waiting for streetcars and cabs near the site of the explosion, and "that's why the catastrophe was especially great," a fire department spokesman said.
Visitors from all over the world flock to the festival to drink the famous Munich brew from litersized mugs and sing traditional German songs, accompanied by brass bands.
It was not known if any foreigners were among the casualties.
Brewers and beer salesmen gathered an hour after the explosion to discuss whether to continue the Oktoberfest, but decided to go on with the beer festival, which opened last Saturday and runs through Oct. 5. They also agreed to have the traditional parade of Bavarian folk dancers and horse-drawn carts loaded with wooden beer barrels, a spokesman said.
Police and fire brigades reported they were stretched to capacity by the catastrophe. A spokesman for the Munich fire brigade said between 80 and 100 firemen drove to the scene in about 40 vehicles, signaling the heaviest deployment of firefighting forces since the attack that killed Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972.
Bavarian state Premier Franz Josef Strauss, who went to the scene from an election rally in Trier, expressed shock over the incident. Bavarian Interior Minister Gerold Tandler, who accompanied him, announced a $5,500 reward for clues leading to the arrest of those responsible for the blast.
Despite speculation about a terrorist motive, police said they knew of no threats or warnings prior to the blast.
West Germany has been plaged by urban terrorism since the late 1960s when the left-wing Red Army Faction, under the leadership of Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof, began a wave of terrorist attacks, kidnapings and robberies. They and many of their key followers eventually were arrested.
Baader and Meinhof apparently committed suicide in jail in 1977, and terrorism appeared to subside in recent years.