The truth about Waco

A survivor says the government still isn't admitting its role in the deaths of 74 Branch Davidians.

Published September 9, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Attorney General Janet Reno says she's "very, very frustrated" over recent revelations that the FBI fired explosive devices at the Mount Carmel community outside of Waco, Texas, during the April 1993 siege. I know how Reno feels. I was one of only nine survivors of the Waco blaze -- 74 men, women and children died -- and I've devoted the last six years to understanding what happened there. Frustration is a mild word to describe my feelings about that quest.

Reno's frustration, and mine, has only gotten worse recently as more damaging revelations have surfaced. First there was the CIA agent who told Salon News and the Dallas Morning News that members of the Army's secret Delta Force unit had actively participated in the siege. Then the FBI turned over tape recordings that include audio of an agent requesting and receiving permission to use pyrotechnic devices. Reports on Wednesday revealed the government also used incendiary flares during the Waco siege similar to those used to burn down the hideout of white supremacist Robert Mathews.

The film "Waco: The Rules of Engagement" purported to show infrared images of government agents firing on the building. Now there is also a rumored videotape, uncovered by the film's co-producer, Michael McNulty, that reportedly shows agents in an ATF helicopter shooting into Mount Carmel. No doubt there will be more evidence "discovered," more agents coming forward, their six-year amnesia about April 19 suddenly cured. The FBI has not come close to revealing the full government complicity in the Waco massacre.

Obviously my stake is a bit more personal than most. Back in 1990 I had been drumming in a stagnant Los Angeles rock band when I met and befriended David Koresh. I needed some new drumsticks, and on the way to a gig stopped in at the Guitar Center on Sunset Boulevard. Seeing the sticks in my hand, two strangers introduced themselves and asked if I was playing in a band. The two were David Koresh and Steve Schneider, the closest thing Koresh had to a deputy. Schneider gave me his card and I promptly handed it back. The backside was full of Bible verses. "You guys are a Christian band," I said, uninterested.

I had never been religious in my life, and though I sometimes found myself asking God for a little help, I couldn't remember the last time I had been in a church, let alone seriously prayed. But I did have a spiritual curiosity; there were questions -- big questions -- that I wanted answers to. Schneider and Koresh weren't pushy and made it clear that all they really were looking for right now was a drummer. "I'd like to play some music with you," Koresh said, "and see where we can go from there."

In truth, my band was going nowhere, and Koresh intrigued me. So I took the card back, and a few days later gave him a call. Over the next weeks I hung out with Koresh and some other musicians in his band. I got to know Koresh and was tremendously impressed. Having never paid much attention to the Bible, I was astonished to find that it actually did have some relevance to my life. And while Koresh had never gotten much in the way of formal education, it was clear that his knowledge of and insight into the scriptures was remarkable and profound.

That fall I went out to Waco to play music and meet the larger community. I was pleasantly surprised by what I saw. The people at Mount Carmel were extremely involved in knowing and learning the Bible. In the process of demonizing Koresh and the Branch Davidians -- a name we never used when describing ourselves -- people have made it seem as if Mount Carmel came out of nowhere. In fact, Koresh was the third leader of a religious community that spun off from the Seventh Day Adventists in 1934. They had been living outside of Waco for almost 60 years before the ATF raid in 1993.

I was fascinated with their spiritual search, and I began -- for the first time in my life -- to read the Bible and to see that its message might be meaningful. Koresh was interesting, and the ways in which he explained the scriptures were complex and demanding. I didn't care that he wasn't a graduate of Yale divinity school. He was clearly a serious religious scholar and I wanted to understand what he was saying. So I stayed.

The people around Koresh came from many backgrounds. I met folks who hadn't finished high school, and others with degrees from places like Harvard law school. I spent time with African-Americans, Australians, black Britons, Mexican-Americans and more. One irony of the Waco disaster is that right-wing extremists and racists look to Mount Carmel as a beacon; if they realized that so many of us were black, Asian and Latino, and that we despised their hateful politics and anger, they would probably feel bitterly betrayed.

That isn't to say that all of us leaned to the left. We had some serious criticisms of the secular world that grew out of our faith. But we also had a "live and let live" attitude that had allowed the community to co-exist with its Texas neighbors for all those decades. We certainly weren't as isolated as people seem to think. We shopped in town, some of us worked in the community and our band performed in Waco clubs. I worked as a bartender in Waco for a time and I doubt a single customer would tell you that I stood out in any way other than my ability to mix a mean margarita.

Many have suggested that Koresh was a Jim Jones-like madman. But he wasn't. He had no plans for mass suicide; indeed, in sharp contrast to Jones, Koresh allowed members of the community to leave at any time, and many of them did, even during the siege. But many of us stayed, too, not because we had to, but because we wanted to. The FBI and ATF had been confrontational from the start, they had lied to us and they continued lying up through the siege.

The FBI and ATF had many pretexts for their attack on Mount Carmel. The initial ATF raid, in which four ATF agents and six Davidians were killed, was based on allegations that we were running a drug lab. But later even ATF employees would admit the charges were "a complete fabrication." One member had allowed speed dealers to operate from the building in the mid-1980s, but everyone knew Koresh hated drugs, and he'd asked the Waco sheriff to remove the methamphetamine lab when he took over as leader in 1987.

Charges that we were assembling an arsenal of weapons to be used against the government were equally off-base. We ran a business, buying and selling weapons at gun shows, to bring in revenue for the community. Only a few of us at Mount Carmel were directly involved with this -- I personally had an aversion to guns -- but it was a relatively profitable line of work. Everything was bought and sold on a legal basis. In fact, weeks before the raid, Koresh offered the ATF the opportunity to come out to Mount Carmel and inspect the building and every single weapon we had. They refused.

Maybe the most disturbing allegation, to those inside the building, was that we were engaging in child abuse there. The children of Mount Carmel were treasured, and they were a vital part of our small society. A disgruntled former resident, Marc Breault, was the original source of complaints about the treatment of children, and his wild allegations -- that we were planning to sacrifice one of our children on Yom Kippur one year -- were unfounded. Yes, occasionally kids were paddled for misbehaving, but the strict rule was they could never be paddled in anger. The parents usually did the paddling themselves. A few former residents also complained that David paddled their children, harshly, but I never saw that, and the Texas Child Protective Services workers who investigated the complaints concluded they were unfounded.

The biggest lie, though, is the FBI's claim that we set the building fire ourselves, to commit suicide. At the very least, the FBI has already provided proof that it created the conditions for a disaster. On the April morning when the FBI finally made its move, we had been under siege for 51 days. The FBI had cut off our power weeks earlier, so we had been resigned to heating the building with kerosene lamps. It was kerosene and gas from these lamps and the storage canisters, spilled over the floors as a result of collapsing walls and FBI munitions fire, that is often mistakenly taken as evidence that we doused Mount Carmel with an intent of burning it.

Furthermore, the noxious CS gas that the FBI shot into Mount Carmel (almost 400 rounds were fired at us) was mixed with methylene chloride, which is flammable when mixed with air and can become explosive in confined spaces. CS gas is so nasty that the United States, along with 130 other countries, has signed the Chemical Weapons Convention banning its use in warfare. But apparently there is no prohibition against its use against American citizens.

The amount of gas the FBI shot into Mount Carmel was twice the density considered life threatening to an adult and even more dangerous for little children. Ironically, one of the questions that was asked of the FBI during the congressional hearings was "Why didn't you use an anesthetic gas that would have put the people inside to sleep?" The FBI said it felt anesthetic gas would be harmful to the women and children.

With powerful Texas winds whistling through the holes ripped in the building's sides and roof, Mount Carmel was primed to ignite. And while hours before the blaze FBI bugs inside Mount Carmel picked up, in the words of the New York Times, "ambiguous conversations" that seemed to be about setting the place on fire, I never heard any serious discussion of suicide or starting fires. I certainly never saw anyone try to do so. If we had really wanted to kill ourselves, we would not have waited 51 cold, hungry, scary days to do it. Truth is, we were desperate to live, to figure out a way to end the standoff. But the FBI, riled up, was not going to let that happen.

In fact, Koresh had negotiated a settlement to the crisis: He would leave peacefully, to be arrested and taken into custody by the Texas Rangers, as soon as he finished writing what he called his "Seven Seals" manuscript. David worked as fast as he could on this scriptural commentary, especially given the fact that he had been shot in the initial ATF raid and was struggling not only to write but simply to stay alive. The FBI thought the Seven Seals issue was just a ploy, and dismissed it. But it was legitimate, and in the ashes of Mount Carmel they found that Koresh had completed the first two commentaries and was hard at work on the third when the tanks rolled in.

It remains hard for me to clearly remember what happened after the tanks made their move. Walls collapsed, the building shook, gas billowed in and the air was full of terrible sounds: the hiss of gas, the shattering of windows, the bang of exploding rockets, the raw squeal of tank tracks. There were screams of children and the gasps and sobs of those who could not protect themselves from the noxious CS. This continued for hours. Inside Mount Carmel, the notion of leaving seemed insane; with tanks smashing through your walls and rockets smashing through the windows, our very human reaction was not to walk out but to find a safe corner and pray. As the tanks rolled in and began smashing holes in the building and spraying gas into the building, the FBI loudspeaker blared, "This is not an assault! This is not an assault!"

Around noon I heard someone yell, "Fire!" I thought first of the women and children, whom I had been separated from. I tried desperately to make my way to them, but it was impossible: rubble blocked off passageways, and the fire was spreading quickly. I dropped to my knees to pray, and the wall next to me erupted in flame. I smelled my singed hair and screamed. Community member Derek Lovelock, who had ended up in the same place as me, ran through a hole in the wall and I followed. Moments later, the building exploded.

In the years since the fire, I've tried desperately to find out what really happened. What I've discovered is disturbing. There is convincing evidence that the FBI did more than just create the conditions for a deadly inferno. The recent disclosures about the use of pyrotechnic weapons and incendiary flares show that they might have actually sparked the blaze. As almost any munitions expert will admit, the fuses on the sort of pyrotechnic devices the FBI now confesses to using are notoriously imprecise, and could quite possibly take as long as four or more hours before detonating.

And there are many other questions. A just released Defense Department document backs up the CIA agent's assertion that members of a classified U.S. Army Special Forces unit were present at the siege. According to U.S. law, the military is barred from domestic police work. Even more troubling is the fact that the unit members were, according to the document, warned explicitly "not to video the operation." Why?

Infrared images taken from surveillance planes seem to indicate that the FBI was -- despite its denials -- firing shots into the building and shooting at Branch Davidians who tried to flee. And while some experts dispute whether the infrared images contain proof of gunfire, there are also photographs that show one of the metal double-doors at the building's entrance riddled with what appear to be bullet indentations that could only have come from shooters outside Mount Carmel. Mysteriously, the FBI has said that this door totally disintegrated in the fire. Just as mysteriously, the adjacent door survived the fire in excellent condition. Tape recordings of the negotiations between the FBI and Koresh catch the government agents chronically lying about details big and small, almost as if they wanted the discussions to fail.

There are other questions: Why did the FBI call the local hospital hours before the siege and ask how many beds were available in its burn unit? Why did it not equip the tanks with a firefighting
agent that would have put the flames out quickly?
What did the FBI negotiator mean when he threateningly told us we "should buy some fire insurance"? Why did the FBI not allow anyone access to the crime scene for several hours, despite an agreement with the Texas Rangers that they would be allowed to inspect the area first? And on and on.

I often wonder why I survived the blaze while so many others did not. Perhaps it was to be some sort of a witness. That's why I wrote a book about the siege and Koresh and life at Mount Carmel. Maybe that's also why the recent Waco news has left me both angry and relieved. Angry because for so long the FBI has called others and myself liars for suggesting they did what they now admit they did. Relieved because perhaps the truth is finally, slowly, starting to emerge. The FBI lied about the pyrotechnic devices for six years, demonizing the Branch Davidians in the process. They also inspired a large number of extremists -- people like Timothy McVeigh -- who in turn have killed others, even though we had no affinity with the right.

What's harder to believe: that the FBI, by shooting explosive devices into an area they had saturated with flammable gas, helped spark a deadly inferno? Or that the FBI honestly didn't know anything at all about the evidence that it has suddenly discovered in its files and recollections? Let us hope that we do not have to wait another six years before the complete and terrible truth about what happened on that cold April morning is finally disclosed.

By David Thibodeau

David Thibodeau's book, A PLACE CALLED WACO: A SURVIVOR'S STORY, has just been published by PublicAffairs/Perseus Books. He can be reached via his website,

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