Sunday, March 7, 2010
Beginning on February 28, 1993, the United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) attempted to execute a search warrant at the Branch Davidian ranch at Mount Carmel, located nine miles northeast of Waco, Texas. After an exchange of gunfire, four agents and six followers of David Koresh were killed. The FBI then conducted a 51 day siege which ended when fire destroyed the compound on April 19. Seventy-six Davidian followers died in the fire including including more than 20 children, two pregnant women, and Koresh himself.
Branch Davidian Seventh Day Adventists are a Protestant sect originating in 1955, and are a reform movement that had begun within the Seventh Day Adventist Church around 1930. With increasing membership, the group moved the church to a hilltop they named Carmel Mountain which was several miles west of Waco. Mount Carmel was named after a mountain in Israel mentioned in the Bible. The group moved to a larger site east of the city a few years later. The group had sold most of the land that belonged to them by 1992 except for 77 acres. Most of the buildings had been removed or used as construction materials to convert much of the main chapel and water tank into apartments for the resident members of the group. Most of the group's members had been associated with the Davidians for a few generations and had large families. After construction was complete, the new Mount Carmel Center consisted of a main church building, administrative and storage buildings, and homes for the leaders and important visitors.
One of the biggest controversies is who fired first. Helicopters had been obtained by the Texas National Guard on the ground that there was a drug laboratory at Mount Carmel. The official explanation of the events stated that helicopters were mainly used as a distraction, and that the Davidians were not targeted because the helicopters didn't have mounted guns. One negotiator admitted that the helicopter's occupants were armed and could possibly have opened fire but that it wasn't the sole purpose of the helicopters. The lead attorney for the Davidians' wrongful death lawsuit explains that the condition of the left-hand door tells you that the right-hand door wasn't consumed by fire, but purposely misplaced by someone. This evidence is in support of the government firing the first shot.
Another controversy is that during the final raid, CS gas was injected into the building by armored vehicles in an unsafe manner that could have started a fire. Two of the three fires started well inside the building, away from where the CS gas was pumped in. Despite this, survivor David Thibodeau claimed that damage to the building allowed the gas to spread. He says the ATF broke the walls, broke the windows down, and spread the CS gas. Attorney General Reno and spokespersons for the FBI claimed that no pyrotechnics were used during the assault between 1993 and 1999 (even under oath). However, pyrotechnic Flite-Rite CS grenades were found in the rubble immediately after the fire. Finally, in 1999, an FBI spokesperson admitted that these devices, which dispense CS gas through an internal burning process, had been used early that morning to penetrate a covered, water-filled construction pit 40 yards away, and were not fired at the building itself. The FBI claimed that the fires had started about three hours after the grenades were fired. When the FBI turned over documents to Congress, the use of pyrotechnics was missing. The six year failure to disclose the use of pyrotechnics led Attorney General Reno to demand a second investigation. A senior official of the FBI told Newsweek that up to 100 agents knew about the use of pyrotechnics, but no one spoke up until 1999.
The government claims that surveillance devices planted in the walls of the building captured a number of conversations which are evidence the Davidians started the fire. Contradicting this, reporter Diana Fuentes said that when the tapes were played in court on April 19, few people heard what the FBI audio expert claimed to hear. She said the tapes were filled with noise and the voices could only occasionally be perceptible. Since the words were faint, some people in the courtroom could understand what was being said, while others could not.
The Branch Davidians had given ominous warnings involving fire on several occasions leading Congress to conclude that they had started the fire. Due to the fact that the FBI had not released the use of pyrotechnics at the time of the investigation, a second investigation by the Office of Special Counsel was conducted. Even with this new evidence, they reached the same conclusion and no further congressional investigations followed. In Professor Kenneth Newport's book The Branch Davidians of Waco, he attempted to prove that that the Davidians started the fire themselves and that it was preplanned. His evidence included conversations the FBI recorded during the siege, testimonials of survivors Clive Doyle and Graeme Craddock, and the purchase of diesel fuel the month before the siege started. Texas state authorities bulldozed the site less than a month after the siege ended, on May 12, making it impossible to gather additional forensic evidence.
A large concentration of bodies, weapons, and ammunition were found below the building. The arson report suggests the possibility that many of the occupants did not make an attempt to escape the burning building. It also mentions another possibility which is that structural debris from the fire on the west side of the building could have blocked a possible escape route through the underground tunnel system. An independent investigation concluded that if the compound residents wanted to escape the fire, they had enough time to do so.
Since Davidian leaders repeatedly denied plans to commit mass suicide to negotiators during the siege, the FBI believed that there was no possibility such event would occur. People leaving the compound said that they had not seen preparations for such a thing. The FBI concluded that there was a possibility that some of David Koresh's followers would follow him if he committed suicide. According to Alan A. Stone's report, the FBI used an incorrect psychiatric perspective to evaluate the Davidian's responses causing them to over-rely on Koresh's statements that they wouldn't commit suicide. This error could have caused them to be over-confident about their will not to commit suicide altering the questions the negotiators asked the Davidians.
According to autopsies of the dead, some women and children who had fallen beneath a fallen concrete wall of a storage room had died of skull injuries. Photographs after the fire show that the M728 CEV tank that crashed into the building to inject CS gas did not come close enough to cause the collapse, which was most likely the result of the fire. Photographs show signs that fragments of concrete were ejected from the body due to impact or stress. This suggests the damage was caused by intense heat. Autopsy photographs of other children showed that their muscles suddenly tightened before death which is consistent with cyanide poisoning, one of the results produced by burning CS gas. The DOJ report indicated that only one body had traces of benzene, one of the components of solvent-dispersed CS gas. The gas insertions ended nearly an hour before the fire did meaning that there was enough time for solvents to dissipate from the bodies of the Davidians that had inhaled the tear gas.
According to autopsy records, a minimum of 20 Davidians were shot, including 6 children under the age of 14, and one three-year-old was stabbed in the chest. The medical examiner who conducted the autopsies believed these shootings were mercy killings by Davidians trapped in the fire with no escape. According to survivor Clyde Doyle, who was a burn victim himself, the gunshots were mercy killings. In a 1995 press conference in Las Vegas, Nevada, Doyle said that he could understand why someone would end the suffering of another, especially a child, who had been gassed and was burning to death. To him, killing each other in such a time of peril made more sense than a "suicide pact" as some claimed. He believes that the people who made such claims had never been on fire.
I don't think Mount Carmel was legally run since a Texas agency responsible for child protective services claimed to have a substantial amount of evidence that children were being abused at the site. In addition to that, authorities had reason to believe that Koresh and his followers were stockpiling illegal weapons. Despite this, I don't think the siege was appropriately conducted. I don't think such violent means were necessary to siege Mount Carmel. One of Timothy McVeigh's motives for the Oklahoma City Bombing might have been to get retaliation for the Waco Siege. This might also have been a motive for the Columbine High School massacre that took the lives of 15 people. It will probably never be known for sure who fired the first shot. I don't know why the FBI would lie about the use of pyrotechnic devices until 1999. I think the Davidians didn't escape the burning wreckage because the escape route out of the tunnel was blocked with structural debris. Setting the building on fire and injecting CS gas causing some of the occupants, including children, to be gassed and burned to death was an extremely cruel thing to do. It is highly unfair to say the Davidians committed suicide when all they were trying to do was end the suffering of each other, especially the children. Regardless of who is to blame, the Waco Siege was truly a tragedy that took the lives of 82 Davidians and 4 agents.