Houston Chronicle, Feb. 27, 2003
By JOHN W. GONZALEZ
WACO — A decade after the siege at Mount Carmel, the few remaining Branch Davidians still anguish over the decimation of their religious community, just as survivors of slain federal agents continue mourning their painful losses.
Today marks the 10th anniversary of the bright Sunday morning in 1993 when authorities launched the abortive raid on the Branch Davidian compound in rural McLennan County to serve a search warrant alleging weapons violations.
The shooting deaths of four federal agents and six sect members and the ensuing 51-day standoff will be recalled in memorial services at Mount Carmel and across the nation.
Sect leaders expect a far bigger commemoration on April 19, the day in 1993 when 74 more Branch Davidians perished in flames before a global television audience. It’s a date so infamous it motivated the deadly bombing in Oklahoma City on the same day in 1995.
For the past nine years, Branch Davidians have conducted their memorials only on April 19. This year, at the request of survivors of the first sect members to die, a gathering is planned today at the group’s chapel, which was built three years ago atop the ruins of the burned-down compound.
Branch Davidian leader Clive Doyle said the sect’s roster of dead, along with the names of the four slain federal agents, will be recited as they have been at previous anniversaries.
“We certainly feel that we were done wrong and there were people in high places that made decisions that weren’t unacceptable, but as far as hating the FBI or hating individual officers that were involved, we don’t,” Doyle said.
The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms headquarters in Washington, D.C., has authorized its offices across the country to mark the agency’s darkest day “as they see fit, anywhere from moments of silence to memorial services to church services,” said ATF regional spokesman Franceska Perot in Houston.
“We think it’s significant because these agents gave their lives for something they believed in and something we continue to believe in. We have promised as our motto to the families to never forget their sacrifice,” Perot said. In addition to the four agents slain, 16 were injured. None is allowed to comment on the experience because of a pending appeal of the Branch Davidian’s wrongful-death claim against the government, which was rejected in a 2000 federal trial.
“The government is still trying to maintain that they did nothing wrong,” said Doyle, one of nine people who emerged from the flames. “To me, it’s so obvious … that something terrible went on.”
The government, however, insisted its agents were attempting to search for illegal weapons in the compound and were met by unprovoked gunfire from Branch Davidians — a version still disputed by the sect.
The past decade has been tough for the sect children who were among those negotiated out of the compound, Doyle said.
“They’re all pretty much grown up now, in their teens. They still can’t understand why their government hasn’t even apologized, let alone done anything to reimburse them,” said Doyle, a native Australian whose 18-year-old daughter died in the fire. She was one of several wives of sect leader David Koresh, who perished as the siege ended.
Doyle is one of a few remaining followers still occupying the 77-acre site. He leads weekly religious services for about six people who continue to ponder Koresh’s scriptural interpretations.
“We don’t have the same kind of group, especially since we lost 82 of our members,” including two unborn children, he said. “We’re pretty much scattered, what’s left of us … We’ve still got seven guys in prison who aren’t going to get out until 2006 or 2007.
“I still believe in what I was studying 10 years ago. That’s why we get together, those of us that can. We worship, study and compare notes and try to bring back memories of what we were taught or explanations of the scriptures that were made,” Doyle said.
Some original followers find it hard to return to Mount Carmel, he added.
“Maybe they can’t deal with the trauma of coming out here where so many lost their lives,” Doyle said.
Mount Carmel is owned by the General Association Davidian Seventh Day Adventists, Inc., an entity with a complex and colorful 73-year history prone to internal feuds. Doyle, who pays the property taxes, shares the site with a longtime Branch Davidian who left the community because he disagreed with Koresh and returned after his death.
Mount Carmel caretaker Ron Goins doesn’t claim to be a Branch Davidian or a Koresh loyalist, but he’s spent the past five years here analyzing Koresh’s teachings.
“When I first came, we had eight to 10 survivors in the area,” he said. Several died or moved away “or decided not to come anymore,” he said. “We’re down to a half a dozen plus the occasional newcomer.”
Some of the Branch Davidians imprisoned on siege-related charges continue the movement from behind bars, backed by free-world Web pages, Goins said.
“Livingstone Fagan has been writing along the lines of what David was about from a higher religious perspective. Renos Avraam, another survivor out of the fire, believes that he has been anointed or has a calling. He’s written extensively and he has a minor following, probably bigger than our following,” Goins said.
Collectively, the survivors’ fragmented efforts have given the sect an “Internet afterlife,” according to religious scholars. People from around the world are drawn here to see Mount Carmel. The gates are left open every day but Saturday, the sect’s Sabbath.
Waco’s tourist information office off Interstate 35 provides those who ask with a map to Mount Carmel, and almost every day there are takers. Visitors view remnants of the showdown — from a charred bus to spent shell casings — and stroll among 82 crape myrtles that memorialize the sect’s victims.
“I’d like to see a bed and breakfast here for people who want to stay a week at a time and study and listen,” Goins said.
For now, a one-room museum displays artifacts and photographs of the siege and showcases a few of the dozens of books and videos that chronicle the ordeal. If they’re interested, visitors are directed to the nearby town of Elk, where a monument to the slain ATF agents stands outside St. Joseph’s Catholic Church.
In Waco, there were no plans to publicly commemorate the anniversary.
“Wounds are reopened by that,” said city spokesman Larry Holze.