WACO, Texas >> On a grassy Texas prairie two decades ago, massive flames engulfed a religious sect’s compound where nearly 80 people — some from Hawaii and including two dozen children — had been holed up since a botched federal raid seven weeks earlier.
Millions watched live television coverage of the fiery end of the government’s standoff with Branch Davidian members who included sect leader David Koresh, whom authorities had been trying to arrest on weapons charges. Local hospitals prepared for burn victims, but only nine people escaped.
“After I jumped out, I could see the (burned) skin rolling off my hands,” said Clive Doyle, who lost his 18-year-old daughter in the fire but was able to escape after a military vehicle rammed a hole through the building. “It was pure horror.”
Emotional wounds remain raw for survivors and those who left the compound during the 51-day standoff, many who gathered for a memorial service today — exactly 20 years after the blaze. They still blame law enforcement agencies for the deaths of their relatives and friends, seeing the incident as an unwarranted government intrusion into personal and religious freedoms.
Paul Fatta, a former Hawaii resident who was released from custody in 2006 and now lives in San Diego, told the group gathered today that he still considers himself a Branch Davidian. Fatta, who was at a gun show in Austin the day of the ATF raid but was convicted on weapons charges, said losing his friends — not serving prison time — was the hardest part.
“My suffering or what I went through is nothing compared to my friends who were on the property, and the kids. They are the ones who really suffered, and to live your life without your parents” is awful, Fatta said, referring to the children who left the compound during the standoff.
Twelve former Hawaii residents died in the fire.
Most do not blame Koresh, who attended Seventh Day Adventists churches in Honolulu before moving to Texas, and do not believe he held control over anyone.
Some survivors remain in Central Texas, but only a few still follow Koresh’s teachings and attend a weekly Bible study led by Doyle. Although some still believe Koresh was a prophet, others have turned against religion or associate church with painful memories.
“It haunts me every day of my life,” 29-year-old Heather Jones Burson said after the memorial service, which was attended by about 75 people who included survivors and others who blame the government. “To this day, I still don’t understand why. There were so many other ways to deal with it.”
ATF agents raided the compound about 10 miles east Waco on Feb. 28, 1993, trying to arrest Koresh for stockpiling illegal weapons. But the group — an offshoot of the Seventh-day Adventists — had been tipped off about the raid, and a shootout ensued. Four agents and six Davidians were killed that day, and a standoff ensued.
As the weeks dragged on, federal authorities said they were becoming increasingly worried about the Davidian children possibly being abused. Koresh was known to have multiple “wives,” including preteen girls. Then on April 19, 1993, after an FBI negotiator shouted over a loudspeaker for Koresh to lead his people out and “be a messiah, not a destroyer,” military vehicles began ramming the buildings and spraying tear gas inside. A few hours later flames were seen spreading through the compound.
Authorities claim the Davidians committed suicide by setting the fire and shooting themselves. But survivors deny there was a suicide pact, saying military vehicles knocked over lanterns and ignited the blaze. Some independent experts have said FBI aircraft footage shows 57 flashes that indicate gunfire toward Davidians inside the compound or on the roof that morning.
In 1994 in San Antonio, 11 Davidians went on trial; all were acquitted of murder and conspiracy to commit murder charges. However, five were convicted of voluntary manslaughter and weapons charges, and three were convicted on weapons charges. A 12th Davidian pleaded guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for testifying against the others; she was sentenced to three years in prison and was released in 1996.
The federal judge sentenced most to 40 years in prison, but in 2000 reduced most terms to 15 years after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his decision.
Burson, whose father and grandfather died in the fire, was the last of the 21 children who left the compound during the standoff; 14 adults also left. Burson, who got married on the 10th anniversary of the compound fire so she would associate the date with a positive event, said she cannot bear to go back to the site, where a wall of stones engraved with each victim’s names is at the property’s entrance.
“It’s painful, so sad,” she said, noting that she remembers riding go-carts with friends on the compound and being riveted by Koresh’s lengthy sermons about the end of the world.
“It makes me think of all of the memories, and now it’s just gone.”