Survivors mark 10-year anniversary of raid on Branch Davidians
ReligionNewsBlog.com • Friday February 28, 2003
Associated Press, Feb. 27, 2003
By ANGELA K. BROWN, Associated Press Writer
WACO, Texas- Children were playing, women were cleaning the kitchen and some men were reading the newspaper that Sunday morning as rain drizzled outside the Branch Davidian compound.
Just before 10 a.m., sect leader David Koresh appeared in the cafeteria doorway and said he’d been told someone was coming.
“He said, `Everybody stay calm,’” recalled Clive Doyle, who was in the compound. “I could hear him go down the hall and open the door. Then I heard gunfire, shots being fired by the hundreds. I heard him say, `Wait! We’ve got women and children in here!’”
It was Feb. 28, 1993, when federal agents were trying to arrest Koresh for stockpiling illegal weapons. By the end of the day, six Branch Davidians and four officers were dead.
The botched raid triggered a 51-day standoff that ended when FBI-led military vehicles rammed and spewed tear gas into the compound, which exploded in flames and burned to the ground. More than 70 people died, including two dozen children.
Survivors and families of the slain Branch Davidians planned to hold a memorial service Friday at a chapel built a few years ago on the site, called Mount Carmel, 10 miles east of Waco.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms was planning a private service for agents Friday during a training seminar in Houston.
A decade later, among the survivors’ lingering questions is why the ATF raided the compound instead of arresting Koresh during his jogs or trips into town. And why couldn’t the ATF, with an undercover agent inside the compound until shortly before the raid, have planned better to prevent such an outcome?
Because of pending lawsuits, the ATF won’t comment on the raid and the standoff’s fiery end, said agency spokesman Andrew Lluberes.
Government officials said after the events and in subsequent congressional hearings that Koresh had been tipped off about the raid that morning. They say his followers starting shooting soon after agents pulled up in two cattle trucks and announced their intention to search for explosives and automatic firearms.
Cult members say they started firing only after law enforcement authorities did.
“There was no ambush” by Davidians, Doyle said. “The government said we knew 45 minutes before they got there, but if that was true, wouldn’t they have all been shot while getting out of their cars?”
The religious group had been in the Waco area since shortly after it was formed in the 1930s by some Seventh-day Adventists. After a split in the late 1950s, the larger group became the Branch Davidians.
That sect split in 1984, and most of the group followed Koresh, whose real name was Vernon Howell. As more followers moved to the area, they built the large compound, which had two floors of sleeping quarters, an underground bunker, cafeteria, chapel, gym, swimming pool, water tank and observation tower.
Koresh called himself Christ and said all women on Earth were supposed to be his “wives.” His preaching, which sometimes lasted 18 hours, focused on the biblical book of Revelation and the end of the world.
Koresh set meal times and assigned tasks but didn’t force people to stay, some of his followers said.
“Nobody wanted to go because if you left, you were going to miss something you wanted to hear,” said Catherine Matteson, 87, who survived the raid and left the compound a few days later.
Authorities had known about the weapons since 1987, when Koresh and others had a shootout with the son of the group’s former leader. In the three years before the raid, police also heard reports that Koresh fathered babies with underage girls and physically abused children.
During the raid, ATF agents have said sect members sprayed them and their trucks with bullets. A man in the tower used a machine gun, while others had high-powered weapons and launched grenades, authorities have said.
ATF agents Conway LeBleu, 30, of Lake Charles, La.; Todd McKeehan, 28, of Mandeville, La.; Robert Williams, 26, of Brandon, Miss.; and Steven Willis, 32, of Houston were killed.
During cease-fire negotiations that day, those inside the compound agreed not to shoot as the slain and wounded agents were taken away.
Sixteen injured agents were taken to Waco’s Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center, where the Rev. Curtis Holland counseled them and their grieving colleagues.
One agent “was crying bitterly, saying, `I couldn’t shoot her. I couldn’t shoot her,’” recalled Holland, former director of the hospital’s chaplain program. “He was talking about children inside the room where bullets were coming out. It took a while for him to talk about the experience … (of seeing) children actually firing guns.”
After hearing the first shots, Doyle said, he ran down the hall and saw Koresh with a bloody hand. Koresh’s father-in-law, Perry Jones, was crawling away from the door, saying he’d been shot in the stomach. Doyle and others helped Jones get to a bed, where he later died.
Doyle was rushing down another first-floor hallway when he saw the body of Winston Blake, who apparently had been sitting on his bed when gunfire came through his window.
“Water and glass were pouring into the room, and he was laying in a pool of water and blood,” Doyle said.
JayDean Wendell, who had just handed her baby after breast-feeding to her oldest daughter, was shot and killed on the second floor. Peter Hitsman also was killed. Peter Gent was shot while cleaning the water tank outside.
Mike Schroeder had been working several miles away but was shot to death later that afternoon on adjacent property while trying to get back to his family in the compound.
Later that day, Doyle dug a large hole in the storm shelter to bury Perry, Blake, Wendell and Hitsman. Authorities agreed not to shoot while Doyle and others dug another hole outside and buried Gent. Schroeder’s body was removed by agents.
Koresh, who recovered from bullet wounds to his hand and torso, arranged for Matteson and another woman to leave the compound with an audiotape of his teachings to be played on the radio.
Still, followers say they remained afraid even after the shooting stopped and negotiations started.
“It blew my mind. I thought, `Oh God, where did all these people come from?” said Doyle, now 62. “I thought they were going to regroup, come back the next day with more and slaughter us.”
The end came 51 days later.
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