As the long-range mortars fell around the embassy well into the evening, at least 40 embassy personnel, aid workers and foreign journalists hunkered down in the hallway of an administrative building.
One mortar struck the embassy's commissary and another hit Greystone, a U.S. housing compound-turned-refugee camp across the street, killing at least five. Two Liberian guards at the embassy were injured. The operation to bring in the Marines, who arrived Sunday night in Sierra Leone from Spain, was halted.
It was unclear whether the forces of embattled President Charles Taylor or the rebel group Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy orchestrated the shelling.
At least 90 Liberians were killed and as many as 300 injured, aid workers and hospital officials said. The death toll is expected to rise because the fighting cut off hundreds from the main hospital and makeshift clinics.
Outside the embassy's gate, grieving mothers beat their chests and slapped their heads as the dead arrived in wheelbarrows from nearby refugee camps. One by one, 18 bodies were tossed in front of the gate, as embassy guards watched from a security post.
The dead included a baby and his mother, and a boy with half his head blown off. Many faces were frozen in the moments of their horrific deaths.
"America, do something," voices in the crowd wailed. "Is it because we have no oil?"
Scribbled on a piece of cardboard was: "G.Bush Killer Liberia."
President Bush, at his ranch in Texas, indicated he had not yet decided the size of a U.S. force that might be sent to help a promised West African peacekeeping mission in Liberia. Amid the growing crisis, Bush said: "We're monitoring the situation very carefully."
Any U.S. deployment, Bush has said, rests on whether Taylor will step down and leave Liberia. Taylor, whom Nigeria has offered asylum, refuses to leave until peacekeepers arrive and there is stability.
Since Saturday, Liberia has been gripped by the third rebel offensive to oust Taylor in seven weeks. It has all but shattered hopes of a peaceful U.S.-backed transition of power. Yesterday, gunmen in women's wigs and red bandannas cruised downtown Monrovia, breaking into stores and piling loot into trucks hijacked from aid agencies.
The American hesitation to send a force - and the fresh bloodletting - deepened many Liberians' frustration. Liberians expect the United States to intervene because of their historic ties. Freed American slaves founded Liberia in the 19th century, and Liberians often refer to the United States as their "Big Brother."
Yesterday, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan once again urged Washington and West African states to commit troops. "I think we can really salvage the situation if troops were to be deployed urgently and promptly," he said.
Before the shelling began yesterday, scores of Liberians stood expectantly outside the embassy after hearing that more Marines were coming. When they learned that the Marines would guard the embassy but not patrol their streets, their expectations were dashed.
"America is the only country that has the capability and ability to extinguish our nightmare," said Nathaniel Kollie, a zoologist who fled to the refugee camp at Greystone a week ago. "It's a sign that America continues to look down on the Liberian situation and on the Liberian people as nobodies."
U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Terence Dudley said the fact that more Marines were being sent to bolster the embassy showed a "pretty sound" commitment to Liberia.
"We're not here to provide security and stability to Liberia," said Dudley, a Navy spokesman "... By keeping the embassy open, it says a lot about our commitment."
In Monrovia, the embassy had not been expected to become a target. Thousands of Liberians saw it as a haven and took refuge in some of its buildings. Most foreign journalists were staying there, or at the nearby Mamba Point hotel.
The sense of safety was dramatically altered around 12:30 p.m. Mortars began raining down about an hour after Pave Hawk helicopter gunships landed at the embassy, dropping off 21 Marines and evacuating about 25 Westerners.
Some mortars fell into the ocean, and others landed near the hotel. They also landed in other parts of the city, including near the John F. Kennedy hospital, where patients in an outdoor clinic had to be rushed inside.
Most of the mortars landed on roads and in refugee compounds. In one neighborhood near the port, 18 people were killed, according to witnesses.
Outside the Mamba Point hotel, a man carried an injured child to a nearby clinic run by Doctors Without Borders, one of the few functioning treatment centers. His wife ran beside him, a large bloodstain on her back. Then came a little boy carrying a baby. He was crying for his mother, who was nowhere to be found.
They ran past the body of a 12-year-old boy in blue pants, a white shirt, and yellow flip-flops. He lay in a pool of blood on a path next to an old public hospital filled with refugees. He was clutching a plastic bag of potato greens, one of the few vegetables you can find here.
He lay there for hours. People wondered who he was, where his parents were. Finally, some men checked his pockets.
They found his school ID card: His name was Lasana Harding and he was a seventh grader. The men passed his ID around, shaking their heads at yet another young casualty of Liberia's never-ending war.
Contact staff writer
Sudarsan Raghavan at email@example.com.
This article contains material from the Associated Press.